A new grocery store is open in Austin. But don't eat the produce.
There’s a new grocery store in town, but you can’t buy anything there. And you probably wouldn’t want to.
Yucky Shards breakfast cereal. Capperonni Pizza. Plastic Sheet Cake. At The Plastic Bag Store, an art installation open this month at Blue Genie Art Bazaar, shelves are lined with punny plastic-themed items. A deli counter features slabs of meat molded out of single-use plastic bags. Watermelons, potatoes and bananas sculpted from discarded grocery bags make up the “fresh produce” section. And on the bakery table, decorated plastic cakes don the ubiquitous “Thank you!” often seen scrawled across shopping bags.
“I had no idea what it was walking in,” Emily Hammer, a recent visitor, said of the space, “but seeing all these mundane objects that we see in the grocery store that we shop for every day and that are in our fridges represented through plastic, it kind of hits you over the head.”
The installation is the work of Brooklyn-based artist Robin Frohardt. The idea first came to her about a decade ago. She was struck by how much plastic she came home with when buying groceries.
“Watching all of my groceries be shoved into bags inside of bags inside of bags, and they were already inside of bags,” Frohardt said, “I just thought it was so silly how much packaging was involved in just my one trip to the grocery store.”
So, she thought: Wouldn’t it be funny to make a grocery store that only sold packaging? She began gathering discarded plastic off the streets, and asked friends and neighbors to save plastic bags, lids and caps for her to use in the project. After several years of work, the first iteration of The Plastic Bag Store, co-produced by Frohardt and Pomegranate Arts, was set to open in the heart of Times Square in New York City. The shelves were stocked, and the dress rehearsal was done. But there was one problem: It was March 2020.
“We had this epic storefront with like a huge digital sign above it that we were allowed to use for free, and we were going to put all our ads up there in the middle of Times Square,” Frohardt said. “We did one dress rehearsal, and then we just had to close the doors. And so it sat there for many months.”
The pandemic put the grand opening on hold until fall 2020, when it opened for small audiences. After vaccinations rolled out and COVID-19 cases went down, The Plastic Bag Store was able to go on tour. So far, the project has been to Australia, Los Angeles and Chicago. And, now, thanks to Texas Performing Arts at UT Austin and Fusebox Festival, it’s in Austin through April 17.
The Plastic Bag Store is more than a fake grocery store. It’s a whole show. And there are puppets.
After patrons peruse the aisles and examine the shelves, grocery store clerks move everything out of the way, set up chairs and pull down a projector. The space transforms into a theater. Viewers settle in for a humorous and heart-wrenching series of films starring puppets, whose stories demonstrate the “forever-ness” of plastic. The plastic bags and containers we use, the films remind us, never fully biodegrade.
“All of the plastic that's ever been made still exists in some form, even though it breaks down into microplastics,” Frohardt said. “But a straw I might have used in a Happy Meal as a child might be somewhere in the world, and someone might discover it, you know, … hundreds of years in the future, and not know what it is or who I was.”
Throughout the saga, viewers move to various parts of the store and enter hidden rooms. The final part of the show is a live performance. Participants are guided through a museum set in the far-off future. A guide points out various shards of discarded plastic objects — frayed toothbrushes, still-intact coffee stirrers, dirt-covered water bottles — preserved in glass cases and hung on back-lit walls, as if they are priceless ancient artifacts.
It’s hard not to laugh. And that’s sort of the point. If people are laughing, they’re paying attention.
“Humor is a way for me to process my feelings about something that is just overwhelming and tragic,” Frohardt said. “I don't want to just, like, rattle off a bunch of terrifying statistics that people can't really wrap their heads around, and I don't want to, you know, bum people out, or tell people what to do.”
You can touch the objects, but you can't take them home. On Wednesday, Shaun Auckland brought her 11-year-old daughter, Juliana, who walked around the store examining the soda bottles and various fruits and vegetables.
“I love the thoughtfulness the artist put into everything,” Auckland, who works in recycling and sustainability, said. “I have conversations constantly about, ‘Why can’t we recycle this?’ and how there are so many types of plastic that can’t be recycled, so it’s just wonderful that she’s finding a way to give meaning to it through art.”
“I thought it was awesome,” Juliana added.
Frohardt says people often ask her what society should do. How do we solve this plastic pollution problem? But, as an artist (not a policy expert or scientist), she’s not really trying to answer that.
“I think it's more important for me to spark people's curiosity or deeper understanding of the issue,” she said. “People have to be activated or awakened to the issue before they can understand how to solve it.”
The Plastic Bag Store is open Wednesdays through Sundays until April 17 at Blue Genie Art Bazaar. You can get tickets at TexasPerformingArts.org.