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Earl 3.0 at The Hideout.

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Meet Earl 3.0, First Hill’s art-dispensing vending machine

Mixing art and artificial intelligence at The Hideout

Megumi Shauna Arai

Headed south along Boren Avenue in Seattle’s First Hill, if you reach Madison Street, you’ve gone too far. The Hideout is just that; hidden in plain sight in one of the city’s densest neighborhoods and at one of its busiest intersections. Dark, heavy curtains obscure the arthouse-meets-speakeasy within and create a lingering dimness inside—regardless of time or season.

“From the start, the concept was to have an art space funded by alcohol sales,” Greg Lundgren, co-owner of The Hideout, says. “I know it looks like a bar and it functions like a bar, but in my mind, it’s a non-conventional art space.”

The Hideout is defined by its tall ceilings and the roughly 90 paintings that cover its walls—depicting everything from brightly colored abstract shapes to a partially clothed woman with oranges scattered around her feet. Most works are by local artists, and patrons can peruse an artist catalog for information about each piece while they sip. Customers inspired to creative in the space are encouraged to grab paper and pen and submit their own artistic efforts to The Hideout’s in-house magazine.

The Hideout’s art-covered interior.
Megumi Shauna Arai

There’s one other predominant fixture in the space. Walking under crystal chandeliers toward the back of the room, there it is: Earl 3.0, the robotic art dealer. Earl 3.0 is a former vending machine for chips and candy that Lundgren has transformed into an art-dispensing robot capable of spitting out 2D and 3D artworks for up to $99.

Earl 3.0 isn’t the only art vending machine in town. There’s an Art-o-mat at Venue art shop in Ballard. Clark Whittington created the first Art-o-mat in 1997, restoring a cigarette vending machine to dispense miniature artworks. Customers at Venue buy a five-dollar token and pull one of the machine’s 22 knobs for their selection. Today, there are 100 or so Art-o-mat machines in the U.S. and a few other countries, but Venue is home to the only one in Washington State.

But The Hideout’s art vending machine is homegrown, created by Lundgren himself.

“I’m mechanically inclined—went to college for aerospace engineering—but it wasn’t that hard to reconfigure,” Lundgren said. “The biggest challenge is making sure Earl has enough change to dispense if people insert big bills.”

Part of Lundgren’s identity as an artist is his fascination with robots and their potential to make humans’ lives easier. Lundgren sees robots everywhere; toasters, cars, and laptops, for example. Vending machines are no different. He believes robots are ultimately good for the future of the American workforce; that they’ll free people from their jobs—boring, repetitive labor, he calls it—to pursue their creative ambitions.

“The art dispenser presents a unique challenge for the artist, allows people to buy art at lower price points, and places art in unconventional paths—you don’t have to go to a gallery to find it,” Lundgren says. “It also forces us to consider the roles of robots in our own lives.”

For Earl 3.0, Lundgren used the latest-and-greatest vending machine available at the time because it could accept twenty-dollar bills. He modified the machine’s insides to accept art—to hold and (carefully) drop items of varying weights, densities, shapes, and sizes on command. Right now, Earl 3.0 holds items like Genevieve St. Charles-Monet’s La Croix can paintings featuring flavors like “Send Nudes” and “Reinstalled Tinder,” enamel slug pins by Rosalie Edholm, and Dr. Merkins original snatch patches.

Earl 3.0 wasn’t the first. In 1999, there was the original Earl, an old Coca-Cola machine Lundgren bought at a swap meet and retooled to dispense art. Earl 2.0 came to life in 2005 and was created out of an CD jukebox. With forward and backward buttons, it flipped through original CD display cases and allowed users to view photos, drawings, and paintings behind the glass. Earl 3.0 made its debut in 2011. Lundgren says each of his art-dealing robots has had its own personality.

“Earl 3.0 is a little intimidated by the art,” he says. “I think since he’s used to candy bars and chips, he’s extra cautious about handing art over. Sometimes we have to open him up and pull inventory that he isn’t confident about. I guess it’s better that he’s so protective. The alternative is he just gives it away.”

Earl 3.0’s wares.
Megumi Shauna Arai

Robots inspire Lundgren’s creative output, but it doesn’t mean they’re not a pain. His art robots have been temperamental from the start, each requiring its own strategy for maintenance and upkeep.

“All robots sound awesome. That’s the comedy of them,” he says. “They never work the way you think they will or they’re never as autonomous as they’re supposed to be. They’re fun to work with, but so far, they haven’t been very self-sufficient.”

Lundgren, who also co-owns Vito’s, another storied First Hill haunt, says there will for sure be a version 4.0 art robot. “We’ve had Earl 3.0 for about seven years, and the technology has advanced significantly during that time.”

Headed to The Hideout yourself? Just know Earl 3.0 can’t break your Benjamins.