2022 Festival Archive: Robin Frohardt

Robin Frohardt:
The Plastic Bag Store

January 20-30, 2022

The Wrigley Building

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival


Scholarship and Resources

Destructive Plasticity in Robin Frohardt’s The Plastic Bag Store

An Essay by Marissa Fenley

Robin Frohardt’s The Plastic Bag Store at once laments and monumentalizes the destructive permanence of plastic and, in so doing, beautifully captures the ambivalence of living under climate change. Climate change takes us out of historical time: The world as we know it will assuredly be destroyed. And yet our world is also dizzyingly resilient, endlessly reproducing itself without noticeable change to our daily lives. And the primary reproduction strategy of the Anthropocene? Plastic. 

Frohardt’s Plastic Bag Store is both installation and filmed performance piece. We enter a storefront on Michigan Avenue to find a life-size re-creation of a grocery store, made entirely with plastic bags. The produce section is stocked with vegetables from “Strawbaggies” to “Baglet Pears,” all molded from plastic bags. The cereal aisle is lined with “Shredded Waste” and “Caps N’ Such.” Magazines from “Bagmopolitan” to “Bags Illustrated” contain exposés like “Double Bagged? You know it” and “The Ageless Polly Ethylene & Polly Propylene.” And my personal favorite: In the frozen-foods aisle we find “Bagarino,” a frozen-pizza brand with baking instructions that show an actual plastic pizza hazardously melted on an oven tray. However, what may initially seem to be nothing more than an excessive commitment to plastic bag puns transforms into a ready-made cinema. The shelves turn around to produce projection canvases and cardboard boxes are brought out in lieu of seats. What follows is a series of three puppet films following the past, present and future of single-use containers. The triptych serves as a meditation on the inherent contradictions of plastic: It is both indestructible and destructive, permanent and disposable. Frohardt brings such contradictions to bear on the absurdity of history-making and our instance on seeing ourselves within historical time—a temporality that ultimately erases us. 

The first film uses shadow puppetry and follows a lazy young Grecian with an oddly contemporary sensibility. As a true entrepreneur, he disrupts the clay pot industry by introducing single-use clay pots in a misguided attempt to alleviate the laborious task of having to refill the same pot over and over again. The conceit does not make much sense; then again, single-use plastic doesn’t make much sense either. This first film is most interesting for the ways that it comes to bear on the second film, which uses tabletop puppetry and follows a museum custodian named Helen, who walks past a clay pot on her daily route. This clay pot was created by our previous young anti-hero, and on it, he painted a scene warning about the dangerous by-products of disposability—in this case, the creation of a massive clay trash heap. However, like Keats’s Grecian urn, the clay pot proves a silent historian: Its author’s message is lost on Helen even as she is struck by its permanence. Helen is portrayed by a doll-like puppet, only a few feet tall, with a sculpted face and soft-form body. Her puppeteers are visible behind her, and their hands often double as her own hands, as she completes her custodial duties. As Helen picks up empty plastic bottles littered amongst the museum’s relics, she articulates what seems to be the piece’s main thesis: the hazardous permanence of plastic. Upon arriving home, Helen sits down and writes a letter to future generations on the back of an old receipt, warning about such destructive impulses. She seals it in a bottle and throws it in the trash. 

The Plastic Bag Store activates a concept that contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou (2012) calls “plasticity.” Loosely defined, plasticity is, on the one hand, a pliable and easily molded substance that creates new forms from old ones. However, Malabou is more interested in the other side of plasticity: its ability to annihilate and explode those forms out of which it creates new ones. Working primarily with the neuroscience of the brain, Malabou asserts that if “good plasticity” sculpts memories into a cohesive identity, “destructive plasticity” deforms memory, sometimes creating memories out of nothing, memories that have no actual origin. I engage Malabou here because she helps to connect the relationship of plastic to history—a connection that drives The Plastic Bag Store. Plastic creates endless forms: water bottles, bags, toothbrushes, combs, cigarette lighters, those little plastic sticks from Starbucks that go in plastic lids to prevent coffee from splashing out of plastic cups. Yet, Frohardt asks: What are these forms annihilating? What memories are they erasing while they themselves are incapable of decay? 

In the third film, which also uses tabletop puppetry, an archeologist excavates a frozen tundra sometime in the distant future. The archeologist—a puppet in the same style as Helen—leans over a hole in the ice and slowly fishes up each of the items described above. He then brings them back to his lab to be studied. The toothbrush? A child’s doll, he surmises. The cigarette lighter? A canister of holy water. And the little plastic sticks? A talisman with intricate carvings of a God. He finds Helen’s water bottle—a letter carrier—with her scribbled receipt. Her letter has been erased except for a line at the very bottom: Our Most Valued Customer. The archeologist decides these artifacts must have come from the society of the Ancient Customer—a period that falls “somewhere in between the castle people and robot wars.” The mantra of these people, he postulates? “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” Consumerism fueled by plastic is all that remains of our history—one that does not create a cohesive narrative from our present to our archeologist’s future, but rather one that annihilates our present, replacing it with memories that never happened. 

Frohardt next asks us to visit the Museum of the Ancient Customer. The frozen-food section opens up, and we find ourselves in a room with our totems on display in glass cases. As we walk through the museum, we are led back to a life-size re-creation of the Temple of Customers (the Plastic Bag Store that we just left) with an invitation to see a full replica of the world of the Customers outside the store’s doors. Here, Frohardt asks us to return to our present, delivering us to the affective state of historical plasticity: the feeling of living in a present that will soon be annihilated by our very attachment to its permanence.

Works Cited

Malabou, Catherine. The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Translated by Carolyn Shread, Polity, 2012.

Play Video

View Robin Frohardt’s presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Robin Frohardt at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 22, 2022, Robin Frohardt was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “What We Leave Behind: The Plastic Object Geological Layer.”

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held online through Howlround.

Transcript of Robin's Presentation

Great, yeah, thanks for having me and I'm glad that we can still do this online. So I guess I'm going to talk a little bit about the project. For those who don't know, this is a picture of "The Plastic Bag Store" in Times Square. And so "The Plastic Bag Store" is an installation and immersive film. But basically it's a fake grocery store in a real storefront in which everything is made out of plastic bags. Everything inside plastic bags or single-use plastic.

We can go to the next slide. These are sort of some examples. So we collected all different kinds of bags and containers and lids and bottles and sculpted them into, you know, a pretty elaborate produce section. And we also designed a bunch of our own labels. If we can go to the next slide, I think maybe there’s, yeah, so we like made a whole meat department, you know, those are all used meat trays. And then we designed some of our own original packaging and then, you know, filled those boxes with more plastic crap that we collected. Next slide. 

We have like a whole magazine section. And so yeah, the idea is, you know, it’s basically one joke repeated one million times that it is a store that only sells bags and that everything is all bags, bags, bags all the time. So you can go to the next slide. Cigarettes. A lot of detail. All of the boxes have like recipe lists and games on the backs of cereal. And there’s a pretty elaborate bakery that I don’t have a picture of here, but we can go to the next slide. You know, all of this is, this is some of the bottled water that we have at the store, which is Pacific Gyre, which is, you know, sort of representing the gyres in the ocean where all of the like broken down pieces of plastic are gathering as sort of what the slurry looks like out there, unfortunately. Next slide. 

And so basically, you know, the installation itself, you know, sits in a real storefront right now. It’s in the bottom floor of the Wrigley Building here in Chicago. But as I was, you know, researching plastic pollution as I came up with this idea, ’cause originally the idea was just to make this funny installation just to sort of, you know, highlight how much packaging I was encountering on my trip to the grocery store. It seemed so funny. I thought I would like turn it up to 11 and see how ridiculous we could make it. And so as I was like designing these products and thinking about the project, I read that, you know, that all the plastic that’s ever been created still exists somewhere, you know, cause nothing eats plastic, right? It just breaks down into smaller pieces. But, you know, the thought that a straw that I used for a Happy Meal in the eighties might be somewhere still floating around is a really kind of abstract thought. And it sort of made me think, you know, that if like a Greek pot, you know, that’s thousands of years old, that we still have those then we’re definitely people thousands from years from now are surely going to have water bottles. And that those are sort of the pottery shards of our era. And I have a, my previous work has been, I’ve made installations and sculpture before, but my last project was a puppetry play called “The Pigeoning”, which I brought to Chicago in 2019. And it’s, you know, it’s very narrative driven. 

And so I started to conceptualize this story that would fit inside “The Plastic Bag Store”, and that “The Plastic Bag Store” itself would transform into a theatrical space in which we would tell this story. And so this is like a scene from the first part of the puppet show. There’s several different styles of puppetry that we use, but the show starts in the ancient past and it’s a shadow puppet play about someone in ancient Greek times who, you know, everyone has like a beautiful vase that they carry around. And a young man invents a single use disposable vase in this time and starts selling single use disposable vases in the market. And it causes a lot of problems. They start collecting and he starts importing vases and, you know, basically bottled water from other parts of the world too. And it’s basically just framing what we’re doing with bottled water, but in the context of this ancient Greek civilization, it’s actually quite funny. And so that’s the first part of the play, plays sort of ancient past present day and far off future. And the present day character who, I don’t have pictures here, but you know, she works in a museum in our time and is sort of an admirer of these pots from the past. And she’s a custodian of the museum and sort of the conduit through which all of the, you know, garbage from the museum gets passed. You know, she’s constantly cleaning up, and she sort of makes the connection that her plastic water bottle could perhaps last as long as a vase in the future. And so she writes a message to the future and puts it into a plastic bottle inside of a bag with some other items and drops it into the trash, which is sort of like a portal to the future, which I sort of liked the idea of a trash can being like a portal into the future ’cause you think that that stuff’s going somewhere, but it’s not going anywhere. It’s sticking around. So if you can go to the next slide, we watched sort of her trash make this journey from the present day to the far off future.

And this is another style of storytelling that we use. This is an all cardboard, it looks like an animation, technically it’s puppetry, but we watch her bag of plastic trash make this journey from the present day into the far off future, all in this sort of like sped up cardboard animation. You can go to the next slide. And then it’s discovered by this guy in the future unearths her plastic bag and takes apart, you know, he finds the message in the bottle, but it’s all been faded and lost to time really, except that she had written part of it on a CVS receipt. And the only letters that are legible are most valued customer at the bottom of the receipt. And so he sort of misinterprets her, misinterprets that to mean that most valued customer, that she was the most valued practitioner of the ancient customs and therefore incredibly important. And therefore all of these items that he’s found are extremely valuable and have a lot of significance. If we can go to the next slide. So this is sort of him as he starts to collect more and more plastic artifacts and he’s constantly misinterpreting them and what they are and what they did and how important they were to us. This is him holding a toothbrush. Which he kind of identifies with as a human figure because they have the same facial hair. Next slide. And so, or this is another part of the cardboard film that we sort of see the museum that Helen had worked at sort of post-apocalyptic submerged. But we can go to the next slide. And so then the audience in the end, this future character creates a museum, of the museum of the most valued customer in which all of all of the artifacts that he’s found are on display and all completely wrong of what he thinks everything is. I think there’s one more slide here. Oh yeah, there’s really a couple. So it’s like, you know, a lot of things that, you know, I really like the idea of things that we think of as completely invaluable and mass produced and meaningless, like being, you know, having so much significance and value in the future. And I think there’s one more slide. So he think because he found a message in the bottle from her, he thinks that all bottles contain messages and that they were like letter carriers and he thinks that these lids are compasses. And so the audience then, you know, sees these parts of the story are presented within the grocery store and then as things like a lot of the grocery store shelves and displays transform into playing spaces and audience seating. And then at the end the audience gets to like, tour in real space, this museum that’s been hidden to them until then. And so yeah, I really, yeah, I was really interested in just, you know, telling this story and giving some sort of historical or just context for how long this stuff lasts, ’cause I think it’s so just designed to be invisible. It’s designed to move in and out of our hands and be gone and not to be thought about ever again. But it really is, it’s really quite permanent and you know, it’s funny think of these things being in a museum, but that’s the reality. And it’s interesting because that’s not really probably how we want to be remembered, but it probably is. And so, you know, I think with “The Plastic Bag Store”, you know everything, you know, all of the just overwhelming facts of plastic pollution, it can be really tragic and can feel overwhelming. And I feel like that, I think it’s really easy to sort of try not to think about it or just be like, well what can I do? And so I guess I was sort of trying to, you know, this is me processing my feelings about it and trying to, you know, this is the one, this is the thing that I do. So this is how I’m approaching the project or the problem. But also just to give people a more engaging and humorous way to approach this stuff without feeling so overwhelmed and hopeless that hopefully we, like, if we can like laugh at ourselves, we can kind of process this a little, our feelings about it and then maybe move on and try to do something about it. And we have a, you know, in the store in the Wrigley building, we have a big QR code that people can scan and it will connect them to local groups. This is something that really help put together to help people connect locally with some of the activism that’s going on around the issue. ‘Cause a lot of these things do require action locally. That seems to be the way that most plastic bag bans and any sort of legislation seems to be happening. So it’s great that we can help connect people in that way. Yeah.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 20-30, 2022
The Wrigley Building
410 N. Michigan Ave., on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile

Installation and Immersive Puppet Film

The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival “anchor attraction” is The Plastic Bag Store, open for the duration of the festival in a street-level storefront in Chicago’s Wrigley Building. New York artist Robin Frohardt’s tragi-comic ode to the foreverness of plastic appears to be a storefront grocery, but it’s actually stocked with hundreds of hand-made items—fruits, vegetables, sushi, deli meats and more — all crafted from organic NYC trash. Several times a day, the Store transforms from an installation into a micro-cinema for a series of dynamic puppet-films that transport the audience from the distant past into a dystopian future. With her distinct sense of humor, Frohardt challenges us to think about how future generations will misinterpret us by the waste we leave behind.

This Chicago presentation of The Plastic Bag Store was made possible by generous support from:

Image Gallery

Past Performances and Further Reading