Jan 01, 2024

‘Plastic Bag Store' uses art, trash, humor to discuss plastic waste

Ann Arbor, Mich. — A traveling art installation and immersive film experience, The Plastic Bag Store is using a sense of humor to tell a unique interactive story about the amount of plastic waste people use.

The Plastic Bag Store looks like a grocery store, but all of the items are made from plastic. The exhibit also includes an hourlong puppet film and hands-on aspects for the attendees.

Thousands of plastic items went into making the Plastic Bag Store come to life.

The creator, Robin Frohardt, an award-winning theater and film director, started work on the installation in 2016 and completed it in 2020. That included creating all the items for the "grocery" store, the puppet films and the future museum.

"I'm trying to offer a different perspective. I think sometimes the issue of plastic pollution can just feel so depressing and so overwhelming," Frohardt said.

The Plastic Bag Store starts off as a grocery store filled with items that you'd usually see like vegetables, cereals, soft drinks, frozen foods, fish, bakery items and flowers — but all are made from plastic trash. The product names parody real-life items such as "rasbaggies" (raspberries), "Yucky Shards" (Lucky Charms), "polluted sausage" (polish sausage) and "Plastic Dew" (Mountain Dew).

"Most of the plastic bags and lids and caps and all of that I collected in New York City," Frohardt said. "I was collecting things from friends and family. I was asking people to save things. I was picking things out of the trash and off the street. I was sort of on an odd adventure to try and collect all that stuff and get all the right kinds of colors."

After guests browse the grocery store, the installation transforms into a film-watching event. The puppet show takes viewers through the past, present and future of plastic.

At the start of the show, ancient humans realize the potential problems of single-use containers and try to warn others with an engraved message on a vase.

"The store itself is kind of just like an elaborate one-liner, so it's kind of nice to have this deeper story and experience connected to it," Frohardt said.

The present aspect of the film focuses on a museum janitor, Helen, cleaning up the museum and noticing the engraved vase, adjacent to a plastic cup. During her walk home, she collects plastic trash, including a bag, water bottle and straw. Helen writes a note to the future about the amount waste being consumed and places the note in the plastic materials that she collected and throws it away.

The museum then takes the audience through the frozen food aisle of the exhibit, and the film's focus shifts to the future, where a researcher in a frozen world finds Helen's plastic while ice fishing. The note is illegible, but the plastic still stands. The researcher assumes the objects are important and tries to identify them.

"We've made so much of these objects, and we make them to last for so long, but they're actually quite meaningless to us. They're meant to sort of just be thrown away and to disappear," Frohardt said. "But they're going to be around forever. I thought it would be funny to have someone in the future misinterpreting these objects."

The Plastic Bag Store show then takes the audience on a tour of the museum made by the man of the future and containing the objects he identified. The museum features lighters labeled as holy water containers, toothbrushes labeled as children's dolls, water bottles labeled as letter containers and lids with straws labeled as compasses.

Frohardt and three other people worked on making the products. There was also a team of five puppeteers, a composer, a cinematographer and a sound designer. During the tour there were six people involved, including a couple of technical people and a few performers.

The Plastic Bag Store premiered in New York in 2020, and it has toured in Chicago; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; and Adelaide, Australia. Frohardt was unable to announce any future plans but does confirm that the art installation will be continuing to tour.

"I would love for it to, like, continue to tour or just find a home where it could stay open in one location," Frohardt said. "I wish that it would be irrelevant someday, but I don't know if it will be."

The Plastic Bag Store is on display in Ann Arbor until Sunday, Feb. 5 at the 777 building as a partnership with University of Michigan Museum of Art, University Musical Society and the Graham Sustainability Institute.

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