Enter “The Plastic Bag Store”, Austin’s immersive visual art space

“The plastic bag store” is the the most delightfully extravagant art you’ll see in Austin this year. Or most any year.

Robin Frohardt’s live and filmed immersive show, integrated into an ingenious artistic experience, tackles a serious subject: plastic pollution.

Yet Frohardt’s light touch keeps him from becoming dull or preachy.

“I use humor as a coping mechanism for overwhelming and terrifying problems,” says Frohardt. “No one wants to hear me spouting statistics. Statistics don’t make good theater.”

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One enters Blue Genie’s high-ceilinged studio and event space off Airport Boulevard to find a convenience store-sized pop-up outlet. Still, its departments and graphics are meant to mirror those of a fuller, old-fashioned grocery store with produce, meat, seafood, deli, and frozen sections.

Everything is made of plastic bags.

Some of the elements look incredibly realistic, while others are whimsically satirical. Bags, boxes and bottles of snacks, drinks and cereals, for example, carry brand names such as “Yucky Shards” and “Shredded Waste”.

For about 15 minutes, 50 guests mingle in this store and take many photos. It could have been enough entertainment, but then the gondolas and shelves are bent and rolled. The show begins.

The puppet works in "The plastic bag store" was filmed during the pandemic.

It is divided into six parts.

1. A shadow puppet film set in ancient times that purports to explain the black-on-red paintings on Greek vases by telling the story of an enterprising young man who invents single-use disposable vases for “Knowledge Water “. It becomes fashionable. It imports foreign water with bubbles. Then the discarded vases pile up out of town and then into the sea, where they endanger sea life.

2. The following film, assembled in a style similar to Japanese bunraku puppets, takes place in the present. Attendants draped in black manipulate a puppet believed to be a stoic museum guard.

As she picks up plastic waste from the ground and then from the street, she also tries to understand the meaning of the ancient Greek “Knowledge Water” vase in the museum. At home she sits down to write a message to the future about how humanity is destroying the Earth, which she slips into a plastic bottle of modern ‘water of knowledge’ – read the mark as “Smart Water” – then puts the bottle in a single-use plastic bag.

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3. A third film shows the movement of the guard’s plastic bag from the dump to the sea.

4. Next, the audience walks through the frozen food crate into a space that looks like an ice cave made of white plastic bags. There, we watch another bunraku scene of a scientist in the far future working in a frozen outpost near the equator of a ruined Earth. While fishing through a hole in the ice, he discovers the Guardian’s message and decides to head under the ice to bring back other mysterious plastic artifacts from our present.

5. The audience moves to a third space, a dark, beautifully staged museum exhibit showing the artifacts of our time that the scientist has found. In one of the best jokes of the series, future speculation about the use of these artifacts is wildly inaccurate. For example, scientists decided that toothbrushes were children’s toys.

6. A wonderfully dismissive museum guide invites the public back to the store of reassembled plastic bags. Here, he announces that the store is actually a recreated temple for the “most valued customer.” You see, the sitter had written part of her message on a CVS receipt and those three words were all that survived.

The future worships the present as we worship the past. Yet, do we ever learn?

Outside, the guide announces, awaits an outdoor model of the ancient city of “Austin, Texas.”

Brooklyn-based artist, playwright, puppet maker and director Robin Frohardt created "The plastic bag store," presented by Fusebox Festival and Texas Performing Arts.

Most of these movies were originally meant to be played live until the pandemic hit near when “The Plastic Bag Store” was scheduled to open in a vacant retail space in New York’s Times Square. , drastically limiting the number of performers and audiences that could be confined together.

Frohardt, raised in Colorado, acquired her creative talents within a community of DIY artists in California’s Bay Area. Now based in Brooklyn, she collected art from the store before it became a performance and was produced by Pomegranate Arts, which oversees the work of other ambitious multi-media artists such as Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and Taylor Mac, who transformed the history of the United States into an epic 24-hour spectacle.

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Originally presented in New York by Times Square Arts, it opened briefly during a dip in the pandemic, then moved to Los Angeles. Austin is lucky to have it three or four times a day until April 17 thanks to Texas Performing Arts and the Fusebox Festival.

“I think that stands on its own,” says Frohardt. “The subject sits around longer that way. You think about it more deeply, not just ‘This is bad.'”

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture, and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at mbarnes@statesman.com.

If you are going to

The plastic bag store

When: Until April 17, several times a day

Or: Blue Genie Art Bazaar, 6100 Airport Blvd.

Info and tickets:TexasPerformingArts.org

Bryce K. Locke