The Plastic Bag Store: A Pop Art Installation with a Whimsical But Deadly Serious Environmental Message

When COVID-19 explod­ed in New York City last March, it erased every­thing on the cal­en­dar, includ­ing:

All live the­ater

The city’s fresh­ly imple­ment­ed ban on sin­gle use plas­tic bags

And The Plas­tic Bag Store, a pop-up instal­la­tion that was prepar­ing to open in Times Square.

The the­aters remain dark, but the ban is back on, as of Octo­ber 19th. The 7‑month pause was has­tened by the pan­dem­ic, but also by an unsuc­cess­ful law­suit brought by flex­i­ble pack­ing man­u­fac­tur­er Poly-Pak Indus­tries.

The Plas­tic Bag Store was allowed to open, too, albeit in an altered for­mat from the hybrid art instal­la­tion-adult pup­pet show cre­ator Robin Fro­hardt has been work­ing on for sev­er­al years.

She has long intend­ed for the project’s New York pre­miere to coin­cide with the ban.

Not because she hoped to get rich sell­ing bags to cit­i­zens accus­tomed to get­ting them free with pur­chase.

There’s noth­ing to buy in this “store.”

It’s a per­for­mance of sorts, but there’s no admis­sion charge.

It’s def­i­nite­ly an edu­ca­tion, and a med­i­ta­tion on how his­to­ry can be doomed to repeat itself, in one way or anoth­er.

The Plas­tic Bag Store just end­ed its sold out 3‑week run, play­ing to crowds of tick­et hold­ers now capped at 12 audi­ence mem­bers per per­for­mance. The live ele­ments have mor­phed into a trio of short films that are pro­ject­ed after tick­et holders—customers if you will—have had a chance to look around.

There’s plen­ty to see.

The Times Square instal­la­tion space has been kit­ted out to resem­ble a roomy bode­ga stocked with pro­duce, baked goods, sushi rolls on plas­tic trays, shrink wrapped meat, and oth­er famil­iar, if slight­ly skewed items.

Rows of 2 liter soda bot­tles with icon­ic red labels are shelved across from the mag­a­zine rack. Tubs of Bag & Jerry’s Mint Plas­tic Chip are in the freez­er case.

The orig­i­nal plan allowed for cus­tomers to han­dle the goods as they want­ed.  Now such inter­ac­tions are pro­hib­it­ed.

Pri­or to March, New York­ers were pret­ty handsy with pro­duce, unabashed­ly press­ing thumbs into avo­ca­dos and hold­ing toma­toes and mel­ons to nos­trils to deter­mine ripeness.

The pan­dem­ic curbed that habit.

No mat­ter. Noth­ing is ripe in the Plas­tic Bag Store, where any item not con­tained in a can or card­board box has been con­struct­ed from the thou­sands of plas­tic bags Fro­hardt has col­lect­ed over the years.

The fac­sim­i­les are shock­ing­ly adroit.

“I hunt plas­tic bags on the streets of New York,” she said in an inter­view with cul­tur­al fun­der Cre­ative Cap­i­tal:

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. 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.

This diver­si­ty of mate­ri­als helps with visu­al verisimil­i­tude, most impres­sive in the pro­duce sec­tion.

The prod­uct labels been rich­ly for­ti­fied with satir­i­cal com­men­tary.

A fam­i­ly sized pack­age of Yucky Shards appeals to chil­dren with sparkles, a rain­bow, and a bright eyed car­toon mas­cot who does­n’t seem to mind the 6‑pack yoke that’s attached itself to its per­son.

Every­thing about the “non-organ­ic, triple-washed Spring Green Mix” from “Earth­bag Farm” looks famil­iar, includ­ing the plas­tic con­tain­er.

Pack­ages of Some­times fem­i­nine pads promise “super pro­tec­tion” that will “lit­er­al­ly last for­ev­er.”

The cup­cakes on dis­play in the bak­ery sec­tion are topped with such fes­tive embell­ish­ments as a “dis­pos­able” lighter and floss­ing pick.

The tone is not scold­ing but rather com­ic, as Fro­hardt uses her spoofs to delight atten­dees into seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion of the “forever­ness” of plas­tic and its envi­ron­men­tal impact:

There is great humor to be found in the pit­falls of cap­i­tal­ism, and I find that humor and satire can be pow­er­ful tools for social crit­i­cism espe­cial­ly with issues that feel too sad and over­whelm­ing to con­front direct­ly.

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.”

The Plas­tic Bag Store’s film seg­ments also wield com­e­dy to get their mes­sage across.

From the stiff shad­ow pup­pet Ancient Greeks who are seduced by the self-flat­ter­ing slo­gan of a new prod­uct, Knowl­edge Water, which comes in sin­gle use ves­sels, to the recip­i­ent of a mes­sage in a plas­tic bot­tle, dis­cov­ered so far into the future that he can only admire its crafts­man­ship, hav­ing no clue as to its pur­pose. (Let­ter car­ri­er is his best guess. Even­tu­al­ly, oth­er let­ter car­ri­ers are dis­cov­ered in the freez­ing equa­to­r­i­al ocean, and housed in a muse­um along­side oth­er hilar­i­ous­ly mis­la­beled relics of a long dead civ­i­liza­tion.)

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of the Müt­ter Muse­um and Its Many Anatom­i­cal­ly Pecu­liar Exhibits

The Dis­gust­ing Food Muse­um Curates 80 of the World’s Most Repul­sive Dish­es: Mag­got-Infest­ed Cheese, Putrid Shark & More

The Muse­um of Fail­ure: A New Swedish Muse­um Show­cas­es Harley-David­son Per­fume, Col­gate Beef Lasagne, Google Glass & Oth­er Failed Prod­ucts

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • WW says:

    I remem­ber in the ear­ly-80’s, envi­ron­men­tal­ists kept preach­ing how “Earth-friend­ly” plas­tic-bags and bot­tles were, as opposed to paper-bags, and glass. Boy, were they wrong! It makes one won­der what else they’re wrong about? Plas­tic garbage every­where, now.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.