A New Art Project Shows Ubiquitous Plastic Might Hold More Significance Than We Think

One person’s trash could become an artifact in the distant future. Inspired by the longevity of single-use plastic, Robin Frohardt has created an entire fake grocery store made of plastic bags she has collected over the years. By day, the grocery store acts as an art installation, but at night it transforms into a theater show that imagines a person in the future misinterpreting plastic trash as having special properties. The whole work is Frohardt’s Creative Capital Project, The Plastic Bag Store. Presented by Times Square Arts and produced by Pomegranate Arts, the hybrid installation and multimedia performance will open at Times Square in New York, March 18–April 12, 2020.

We spoke to Robin to learn more about the work.

Alex—Describe the project, and how you got involved.

Robin Frohardt—The Plastic Bag Store is an installation that’s a fake grocery store and a real store front, but it’s also an immersive puppet show. I’ve been working on it for many years. I developed it as part of a Carolina Performing Arts Mellon DisTIL Fellowship at the University of North Carolina where I presented some of the work in the fall of 2018. It was a really great opportunity to be able to have the time and space to work on the show.

After that, I knew that it wasn’t complete in a way that I wanted, and I really wanted to have a New York show, so I started to brainstorm about how that could happen. I reached out to the team at Pomegranate Arts, and we teamed up to work on it. But it really all came together at the Creative Capital Artist Retreat last year where I presented the project and connected with Jean Cooney, the new Director of the Times Square Art Alliance. She wanted to make it the project for the spring program. Basically, all of those things came out of the retreat.

Alex—So, what will people see when they come visit the store?

Robin—By day it’s an installation. It’s a fake grocery store that looks like a real grocery store, but everything inside is made from plastic bags and trash—stuff that I’ve been collecting for years. That was the original idea for the project, to just have the grocery store. However, my work previously has involved narrative puppet performances for adult audiences. So as I was researching plastic pollution, I was struck by something I read, that all the plastic that’s ever been created still exists because it can’t be destroyed, it doesn’t decompose. It’s around forever, and I thought that was an interesting premise for a puppet show: someone discovering our trash in the future, and misinterpreting its significance in our lives, and its actual function. It’s interesting that things that are designed to be used for the least amount of time end up lasting for the most amount of time. I started writing a play about someone in the future accidentally discovering someone’s trash, and completely misinterpreting its significance.

During the day you can see the installation, but there will be ticketed performances and the grocery store transforms around the audience. We built a bunch of trick grocery shelves that transform into a puppet theater. The whole space transforms around the audience as we tell the story.

“They are actually ramping up plastic production, and none of the problems are slowing down at this point. It’s starting to change, but we are not out of the woods. Unfortunately, this project will be relevant for quite some time.”

Alex—I remember that when you got the Creative Capital Award in 2016, the only thing on the project page was this image of an actual bodega that said “Plastic Bag Store.” Then on Instagram you started posting these grocery items, like sushi and chicken thighs, that upon closer inspection are obviously made out of plastic bags. There is so much intricacy in these objects!

Robin—Before I worked with plastic bags, I worked with cardboard—and I still do. I really find a lot of freedom in limitation. If the object was to make anything out of anything, then I feel frozen. But if you told me, you can just make a grocery store out of plastic bags, then I feel like I have an infinite amount of possibilities. There’s a million things that I didn’t do. My practice is very hands on—I obsessively like to make things, so it’s very fun for me to keep making. I’ll be making and hot-glueing until the minute the audience walks in. That’s just my style. I wish it wasn’t like that, but that’s who I am.

Alex—The idea of reusing plastic bags and turning them into art objects isn’t a new idea, but something about taking the actual concept and having it match the material is interesting.

Robin—Yeah, well, there’s a lot of trash in the world, and in New York, so it’s been an interesting challenge to collect it, find something new and get a new idea. I hunt plastic bags on the streets of New York. I’m a real connoisseur now. There are certain colors I’m really attracted to. Certain bags are harder to find. I definitely look at trash differently than most people.

Alex—I’m curious, what’s something you have learned about plastic bags?

Robin—Well, they are pretty versatile. I’m always looking for reds and oranges and greens. Sometimes I find a really interesting color that I haven’t seen before, like salmon or lavender. That’s always exciting.

A common misconception is you can recycle a plastic bag in your recycling bin, which isn’t true. So I often pull them out of recycling bins.

Alex—I saw a work in progress at the Navy Yard, but one thing that struck me was that, even having been conscious about using plastic bags, the show didn’t make me feel bad. Instead it put everything into perspective.

Robin—That’s definitely my intention, I just want to put it into context. That’s why the play is about the ancient past, and present day, and the far-off future. It’s about bringing it into focus, and putting it into context, and giving a little bit of perspective. I have no interest in shaming people for their plastic use because it’s ubiquitous. If you wanted to live plastic-free, that would have to be your whole life. I’m not plastic-free, but I do my very best.

It’s really easy to turn away from images of turtles choking on straws. That stuff comes up in my Instagram feed all the time, and I’m like “Whoa! Swipe on past” because it’s too hard to look at. So what I’m trying to do is to make something that’s fun to look at, and fun to engage with, so you can think about it. Instead of just saying, “That’s fucked up! Ok on to the next thing.”

Alex—One thing I wonder is what an art project about climate change or plastic waste would look like if or when the problem is solved—what does the piece of art do after that problem is solved? Does the art piece still function? I think that your project undoubtedly functions without the problem of plastic bags, but it also addresses the problem in an urgent way.

Robin—I mean, we are not out of the woods at all. They are actually ramping up plastic production, and none of the problems are slowing down at this point. It’s starting to change, but we are not out of the woods. Unfortunately, this project will be relevant for quite some time. It would be great if it was irrelevant—I would love that.

Alex—Sure, that’s true. I wonder what the difference between the impact on the audience in North Carolina will be compared to the audience in Times Square in New York.

Robin—Yeah, it was great in North Carolina. I got a lot of really great feedback. People totally got it, and were totally into it. It was a diverse group of ages of people. There were a lot of elderly seasoned ticket holders, and then the college kids, and even little kids. Everybody got it, and that was really cool.

Alex—What do you think will make the premiere in New York successful?

Robin—My hope is that I can accomplish all of the things I set out to do because it’s kind of an infinite project. I felt good about it in North Carolina, but it wasn’t quite there for me yet. My real hope is that the show is really really good. I want the show to stand on its own as a really polished play and performance. I want people to see that. I know that it can be confusing because it’s this installation and play, and there have been other grocery store installations. So what I would really hope is that people see the show and understand what it’s about.

Alex—You mentioned you connected with Times Square and UNC at the Creative Capital Artist Retreat. Are there other ways that Creative Capital has been helpful?

Robin—Creative Capital has been extremely helpful. Just the fact that there’s all this follow up really makes me feel like you’re invested. If I had a question and I needed something, I could reach out. With a lot of granting organizations I won’t know who works there, there’s no face connected to it. Sometimes the nonmonetary support ends up being more valuable—and that has been fantastic.

I also love that you have to request funds as you go, that has been great. It kept me from spending it all once, and it was nice to know that it was there for future engagements. It really feels more sustainable.

Read more and learn how to view Robin Frohardt’s Plastic Bag Store at Times Square Arts.