Rusty and covered with stickers, they recall childhood dreams. Many of us had our first purchasing experiences with the bubble gum machine. Even now, 10 cents will buy a colorful, thumb-sized ball that turns into a sweet, sticky mess in the mouth. Plastic jewelry costs 20 cents; 30 or 50 cents can even buy an encapsulated toy. But as pleasing as it may be to gaze at a red-painted mechanical vendor and imagine nothing has changed, their heyday has long passed.
Thirty years ago, the machines still supplied their operators with valuable cash. “Today things are different,” says Paul Brühl, who heads the professional association of vending machine operators, Verband der Automaten-Fachaufsteller (VAFA), based in Langenfeld in the Rhineland. Mr. Brühl says vendors struggle to survive. “Many think, granddad sold bubble gum, father too – so I’ll do the same,” he says. But things have changed. Wholesalers have flooded the market with candy. To stay in the business, you must be creative and offer customers something new.
Lars Kaiser fills vending machines not with gumballs, but works of art. Starting at €2, or $2.16, his dispensers offer tiny images, objects, drawings, made of various materials. Each comes with an insert providing a brief insight into the life and work of its creator. “The aim is to bring people into contact with artists,” Mr. Kaiser says. “A vending machine on the corner offers the possibility of integrating art into daily urban living.”
“A vending machine on the corner offers the possibility of integrating art into daily urban living.”
The project got started in Berlin back in 2001. “Nothing like this existed at that time. Of course, artists had worked with vending machines before, but not in this way,” Mr. Kaiser explains. The first art dispenser was set up on Eberswalder Straße in Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg district. More soon followed in Potsdam. There are now some 160 art vending machines throughout Germany; 35 of them in Berlin and Potsdam. 200 artists have participated in the project so far.
Mr. Brühl says vending machine operators often work 70 hours a week. “It’s incredibly difficult to experience an upswing in this market.” In spite of his success, Mr. Kaiser recognizes the truth in this. He’s constantly on the lookout for venues – such as cafés – willing to host his machines. That’s not easy, even though he bears the costs himself. “The project scarcely makes sense from a commercial perspective. Our proceeds barely cover our expenses.”
This isn’t only down to the high cost of the machines themselves but also to vandalism. They are regularly broken into, damaged or stolen. The operators can’t get insurance and are left with the financial consequences. “That’s a big problem,” Mr. Kaiser admits.
Yet, despite the challenges, Mr. Kaiser isn’t the only one breathing new life into these rusty relics. Felix Thome trained as an engineer and is familiar with the machines’ technology. From April, he plans to sell bicycle repair parts from dispensers in Berlin. Like Mr. Kaiser, he will mostly use old cigarette vending machines. “There’s more space for things inside,” the start-up founder explains. And they aren’t as easy to break into as traditional chewing-gum dispensers. An enthusiastic cyclist, he had the idea when night-time or weekend breakdowns left him short of a ride. His vending machines are to furnish customers with spare parts around the clock.
Sooner or later, gumball machines could become a thing of the past. But concepts like Mr. Thome’s suggest the technology can be adapted for modern urban needs – even if their retro, even cult status, is still very much party of their appeal.
Some old-fashioned machines have even become Internet celebrities. Berlin artist Max Schwarck photographs old vending machines, loads his pictures onto Instagram and sells them online as postcards and posters. Far from becoming redundant over the years, he sees the machines as transformed into “semiotic storehouses of urban culture” through their accumulation of markings and scratches. His website refers to an “illustrated panorama of cultural messages.”
What vendors indignantly call property damage doesn’t bother Mr. Kaiser, either. “Art begins on the street. It is a sort of communication.” His art vending machines are regularly scribbled upon. “As long as money can still be inserted and nothing is damaged, that makes me proud,” he says. “The street belongs to everyone.”
This article first appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org