By Nicholas Brown

Nearly a decade into the twenty-first century, we have arrived at a point where declaratively participatory, generous, and vaguely social processes are so deeply ingrained in contemporary art as to be taken for granted. On the right night, one could look forward to indulging in an ice cream cone, having their heartbeat projected into the night sky, and having their fortune told – all provided not only by artists, but as art. So when a viewer rounds the corner of YYZ’s Z Gallery to find a bank of Northwestern Super 80 gumball machines, they would be entirely within the bounds of reasonable gallery behaviour to walk right up and insert a quarter. It feels right to interact with an object that is designed for such a purpose, and it is this programmed response that Atom Deguire’s Business as Unusual makes canny use of. That the vending machines are empty upon closer inspection, their Plexiglas surface coated with continuous patterns of multicoloured vinyl, is an immediate challenge to our expectations of what a gallery can offer, and what an artist does. Just what does this artist, Atom Deguire, do? And, in a work that is undoubtedly about expectations, what should we expect?

While the absence of tantalizing, multicoloured gumballs is inescapable, we must resist the temptation to assume this work is about the vacuousness of advertising. Were the glass containers covered in a deliberately realistic rendering of the absent product, this might be the case. But proximity reveals instead a series of familiar, uniform vinyl shapes – directional indicators typically found in street signage – scaled roughly to the diameter of the gumballs they index. These symbols recall the artist’s past work with directional signs, at a much greater scale both within and outside the frame of the gallery. Where Deguire’s past work has drawn upon the dual function of the symbol to orient the viewer towards the gallery from afar and mark their presence once inside it (the glass faade of the one-room gallery was coated with these indicators, which interacted against the viewers’ silhouettes inside an otherwise empty, white gallery)1, the vinyl pointers shift meaning in their reduced scale and transformed application.

Deguire’s past uses of the directional indicator recall the French conceptualist Daniel Buren’s hallmark grey and white maxi stripes. Contrasting with Buren’s trademark deployment of striped awnings to produce serially repeatable canvases, Deguire’s symbols take the form of cut vinyl, a staple of contemporary commercial displays.2 Considering Buren’s 1973 exhibition Within and Beyond the Frame, some interesting correspondences emerge. In this exhibition at John Weber Gallery, now considered a critical early example of institutional critique, Buren hung a series of 19 identical sections of grey and white striped canvas, extending from within the interior of the gallery out the window on a line, eventually connecting with the adjacent building some 200 feet away.

Where Buren’s use of serially repeated stripes functioned here to address the gallery as frame, we might alternately understand Deguire’s use of serially repeated markers to denote the gallery as container. If we imagine the entire gallery space as a container for people – a phenomenon that the exterior vinyl served to mark – Business should give us pause. Where a gumball machine would be better understood as a container than an art gallery, Deguire denies the former such status. The multicolored vinyl symbols not only act as mimetic stand-in for the purported goods, they rely on the container’s emptiness in order to project their ocular patterns. At any angle, the viewer is presented with an undulating intersection of lines created by the presence of vinyl on all sides of the translucent exterior, a play of the eye made possibly only by the lack of any real existing gumballs to clutter the display.

Read in this way, Deguire’s sculpture enforces a retreat from the literal experience of purchasing and consuming goods towards a considered interaction with the formal experience of daily life reconfigured. Instead of a formalist repudiation of the everyday, Business insists upon it by retaining the material fact of the found gumball machine (as opposed to a representation). By bathing it in seductive light and positioning it at a subtle angle from the gallery’s entrance, Deguire draws upon the experience of desire that such commercial display units conjure. And yet, his insistence on another readymade – the directional stripe – results in a tension between competing contexts.

Rather than denying enjoyment, Business sets up an experience that consistently foregrounds desire: the implementation of the Super 80 gumball machine, the Rolls Royce of candy machines; the use of track lighting to illuminate their red sheen and project the dance of colours from the glass walls outwards; and the specific colour scheme governing the vinyl cutouts, which carefully matches the rainbow assortment found in a real-life gumball machine. By harnessing the magic of art gallery display techniques, Deguire elevates the experience far beyond the perfunctory reality of the shopping mall towards something that might remind adult viewers of the feeling of childlike desire.

In blending self-conscious mimicry and real-world artifacts, Business is a questionable work. Its deployment of recognizable symbols and nostalgic methods of distribution insists upon the everyday, while its reliance on the gallery’s reconfiguration of aesthetic experience enforces a departure from it. In a perverse form of generosity, Deguire demonstrates that what he offers is free, and if the viewer needs proof they can insert money and see what comes out. But as an appeal to nostalgia, the work reminds us that as children, our experience of the candy machine as part of the trip to the grocery store was often more about desire than fulfillment, as few were the times we got candy, and the returns frequently diminished compared to our expectations. Business, by comparison, gives back what we put into it. Follow the directional lines and the viewer gains purchase on the sculptural qualities of the work, experiencing its fullness from every angle. In flirting with our desire for something more, the work asks timely questions about the incursion of the everyday into the space of the gallery and the displacement of aesthetic experiences by art that replicates social processes. Faced with the choice between a fast-diminishing flavour experience, or a visual treat that shifts and grows the more we look, we might ask ourselves what sort of interaction we truly desire. Business as unusual, indeed.


1.This exhibition, entitled Overtake the Document, took place at Paul Petro Special Projects Space in April 2008. In it, Deguire coated the outer window of PPSPS with large-scale fluorescent orange vinyl symbols, while adjacent blocks along Queen Street West were lined with white posters featuring the same directional indicator pointing in the corresponding direction towards the gallery. Thus, they were activated for their purpose of indicating the direction of the gallery, while serving to mark the site itself.

2. It is worth noting that the artist has a background in storefront advertising, having spent years producing window displays for high-end department stores.

NICHOLAS BROWN is a Toronto-based writer, curator, and arts editor of Color Magazine. He has an MA in Art History from York University and works as a gallery assistant at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects and curator at 381 Projects.

ATOM DEGUIRE received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from the Alberta College of Art + Design (Calgary, 2002) and completed his Master of Fine Arts in Visual Arts at York University (Toronto, 2008). To date, Deguire has exhibited nationally in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax. Internationally he has exhibited in Chicago, New York City, London, Berlin, and Prague