Remember the childhood fun of putting a coin into a vending machine and waiting to see which color gumball or type of toy would pop out? Visitors to Palo Alto's King Plaza can get a similar thrill these days by trying out the city's current temporary public-art installation, Toby Atticus Fraley's Artwork Forge II.
The project, a turquoise, shed-sized machine that looks like a cross between a child's playhouse and a retro-futuristic robot with springs for legs, dispenses colorful, postcard-sized images on wooden blocks in a variety of designs. It's a whimsical device that, according to the artist, "simulates the experience of commissioning an original artwork by compiling data from your personal preferences, social media, news trends and celebrated masterworks of art."
The Artwork Forge II, Pittsburgh-based artist Fraley said, is designed to bring a bit of magic and fun to everyday life.
"I don't feel like we have enough of those welcomingly surprising moments in our day-to-day lives," he said.
While the customization aspect may be a simulation, the opportunity to walk away with your own piece of freshly dispensed public art is 100 percent genuine. For the price of just four quarters, each visitor can take his or her own little work of art home with them, after watching the machine "create" it on demand, including, ostensibly, "painting" the work and sending it through the "drying chamber." There are other humorous touches throughout, such as the instructions to press two buttons "at the exact same time!" to start up the machine, and the paint-speckled "courtesy towel" hanging on a hook because "the artwork you are about to enjoy may be wet."
"We have witnessed fascinating debates over whether the machine is actually creating the artworks," Palo Alto Public Art Program Director Elise DeMarzo said."One woman got one and it had cherry blossoms on it and she said, 'Look! I bet this is because Trump's in China right now!'"
The anticipation of wondering what design might pop up next is undeniably pleasurable. On my first attempt, the machine dished out a landscape scene of desert cacti. The second time around, I received an image of a jet aircraft. DeMarzo said she's gotten an astronaut image (Fraley, she said, is a "total NASA geek"), and that the first piece she received, during the machine's test run, portrays a barking dog and the words "Everything is OK." She's kept it on her desk ever since.
"It makes me feel good," she said, adding that she's been saving up her quarters to give to others on the plaza who want to try out the machine (the money funds the replenishment of supplies for the project). The blocks have become collectible among some fans.
"Someone said, 'Can I come see what you get out of it?' 'Of course you can come see!' It's that element of surprise and delight," DeMarzo said. "We've seen people who've come back and gotten three or four."
The fact that it only operates with coins is part of the intentionally vintage experience.
"It sort of plays into the whole retro feel to it, the old ride-on-horses-at-the-grocery-store thing," DeMarzo said.
Palo Alto's is the second iteration of the machine. The first was a less weather-resistant, larger version in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the city wanted a temporary piece mixing technology with art. Those themes were a natural fit for the Palo Alto Public Art Program's goal of hosting engaging, interactive works in the King Plaza space.
Influenced by midcentury design and science fiction, the Artwork Forge II is one of many of Fraley's playful, robot-inspired projects. Others include Fraley's Robot Repair in the Pittsburgh airport, Series 2 Robot Heads (made from found objects with custom electronics), "The Secret Lives of Robots" solo exhibition and others.
"It may come as a surprise but generally speaking I don't see myself as a big robot fanatic," Fraley said. "I guess it's that I like the robots that I'm currently making and I'm really just using them as ways to tell stories. I feel like taking a human emotion and conveying it though these little humanoid pieces makes us re-examine ... what we experience."
The Artwork Forge II, similarly, takes the human experience of producing art and translates it to a machine.
"The entire machine, and not just what's being dispensed, is the actual artwork," he said.
The piece has been in place in King Plaza since November and will remain there until April. Thus far, it's given out nearly 1,000 pieces of art. Visitors are encouraged to upload photos of their works to social media and tag them with @artworkforge on Instagram, where dozens more examples of the designs can be seen.
"There's a nostalgia to it that's just charming," "DeMarzo said. "Everyone who we've seen approach it or interact with it smiles."