For nearly a decade—knowingly or not—Louis Rastelli, a Montreal-based author and cultural historian, has been riffing on the stereotype that smoking and the arts go hand in hand. Rastelli plugged in his first Distroboto—a repurposed cigarette machine that dispenses small-press objects instead of tobacco—in 2001. Today, nine Distrobotos can be found in cafés, libraries, and bars throughout Montreal, dispensing small books, cassettes, short films, photography, even buttons and finger puppets—any piece of art small enough to fit in a box the size of a standard cigarette pack.
Thirty-five thousand items by more than seven hundred artists have been Distroboto-ed to date. The project receives about a hundred submissions a year from around the world. Some are submitted by mail, others are submitted in person during Expozine, the annual small-press fair organized by Archive Montreal, a non-profit arts organization Rastelli co-founded in 1998 with a mandate to promote, distribute, and preserve local independent culture, and that oversees the Distroboto project. “The idea of installing a vending machine to sell samples of my work and that of the artists and writers I was publishing became enticing,” Rastelli says. “And cutting out the middleman was very satisfying.”
When Quebec banned smoking from public areas, in 2006, Archive Montreal bought up more than a hundred cigarette machines that were headed to the scrap pile, hoping to extend Distroboto’s reach. Though, with a dollar seventy-five of each two-dollar item vended going directly to the artists, and no arts council funding as of yet, Distroboto is a long way from having the budget for such an expansion. Until then, Distroboto remains another unique part of Quebec society.