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Transparent Baggage

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

On Tuesday, January 17th, I had the privilege of attending the grand opening of the Plastic Bag Store, an innovative art installation, and immersive film experience by Brooklyn-based artist Robin Frohardt. The entire show is extremely campy, yet grounded in a reality without the loftiness of imagining a better world. A Pomegranate Arts project, the exhibit was co-presented by UMMA, UMS’s No Safety Net Festival, and the U-M Graham Sustainability Institute in partnership with the U-M Arts Initiative.

The experience began with free time to roam around the outwardly colorful and material space. Accompanied by a DJ's upbeat bag-inspired playlist, the artificial grocery store only appeared less intrinsic with closer inspection. Thousands of original, hand-sculpted items all made of discarded single-use plastic stock the shelves.

Each product is cleverly assembled and named, including plays on well-known products like “Bagarino Pizza” (Digiorno), “Bitz (of plastic crap)” (Ritz crackers), and even international goodies such as Australian “Bagemite” (Vegemite).

I was fortunate enough to spend some time picking Frohardt’s brain after the show where she explained she has added a local brand of food from each place the installation has toured so far. I wonder if Ann Arbor’s legacy will incorporate Bagerman’s (Zingerman’s) sandwiches at their next stop.

The store absolutely kept me on my toes for the duration of the experience. Everything was brilliantly constructed of plastic from bakery delicacies to a deli buffet and fish market. Just as I was becoming acquainted with the deceivingly familiar scenery, the store was transformed by crew members in aprons into a viewing area, and a large screen was unveiled. Before I could perceive what was happening, the first part of the film began, illustrating the root of the commercialization of individual water bottles, and the first Olympic games with spartan puppetry. The exhibit originally included a live puppet show, which was transformed into a short film after the pandemic, incorporating an effective soundtrack by composer and frequent collaborator Freddi Price.

As the first act concluded, the audience was jolted once again, shifting focus to a screen on the other side of the room. The subtle change of scenery kept the audience on our toes and engaged for what would come next. The discomfort of sitting on backless boxes additionally aided the sore reality exhibited in the second act. This part of the film illustrated a present-day museum custodian, Helen, her interactions with relics of the previous ancient era, and her realization of the harms of single-use plastics. In a desperate attempt to memorialize the present and eerily warn future citizens, Helen writes a message on a receipt, sending it out to the world via an indestructible plastic bottle.

The harshness of the durability of plastic is made clear when the bottle is discovered centuries later in the third act. To enter this new era, the audience is once again guided through a portal via the freezer section of the store into a plastic snow-covered viewing area. The puppetry once again advances in this last segment, accompanied by a drab cardboard setting where mankind is unrecognizable. A researcher finds Helen’s message and begins a quest under the ice to discover several mundane human relics of our present world and an entire underwater Plastic Bag Store.

These ordinary objects turned-treasurers are brought off-screen into the final act of the exhibition. At the end of the film, participants are guided by actors from the plastic tundra into a futuristic museum glorifying everyday items as discovered in the film. In awe, the audience ends the experience back where they started, met with a new meaning to the present-day Plastic Bag Store. The entire exhibit is a creative and thought-provoking call to action lacking explicit individual blame and rather placing a collective fault on major corporations.

artist Robin Frohardt greets the audience

The experience lacks in-your-face moral expectations to do better and rather leaves the audience with room to contemplate innate and organic motivations for change. The Ann Arbor production was located in a business park, placing stimulating theatre in a place we’re not used to experiencing art, and motivating self-reflection into our everyday lives. The setting cultivates humor and craft to artistically allow viewers to question their methods of convenience. The exhibit itself admits fault, not being a completely zero-waste project, and rather inspires thoughtful consumption over perfection.

After seeing the show, I was inspired to shop at Ann Arbor’s Bring Your Own Container Co., a local refill station and zero-waste shop. Rather than buying another replaceable plastic hand and dish soap, our house made a commitment to invest in reusable containers that can be refilled at the store. While the exhibit lacked pressure for individuals to make a change, it absolutely stimulated reconsideration of my own plastic consumption and motivation to be more conscious of how to reduce waste.

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