A plastic bag store in Ann Arbor sheds light on the environment


Cathy Shafran: This is 89 one WEMU. I’m Cathy Shafran. Right now, we’re talking about a store that’s part installation, part film, and all plastic bags. It’s all part of the University Musical Society’s No Safety Net program. And joining us to talk about it, the UMS president, Matthew VanBesien. Thanks for being with us.

Matthew VanBesien: Thank you, Cathy. Great to be here.

Cathy Shafran: Okay. A store that’s all plastic bags. Can you explain that…or made out of plastic bags?

Matthew VanBesien: Yeah, sure. I mean, it’s called exactly that. It’s literally called the Plastic Bag Store. And the Plastic Bag Store is what we would call a custom-built, public art installation. But it’s also kind of an immersive film and performance experience. It uses humor. It uses craft in a critical lens that really questions, you know, our kind of overwhelming culture in our society of consumption and convenience. It centers in on single-use plastics, but there are some larger questions that the work asks. It’s a piece designed by Brooklyn artist Robin Frohardt. And we’ve been working closely with Robin, her team, and the producers over the last several weeks to really make sure that this piece can happen here in Ann Arbor and for southeast Michigan.

Cathy Shafran: And you’re talking about items that are made purely out of plastic bags that have been recycled? Is that what we’re talking about?

Matthew VanBesien: Right. I don’t want to give too much of it away. But the store, which is the first part of the Plastic Bag Store experience, is exactly that. It’s a grocery store filled with items that have been made– crafted–so beautifully by Robin to really simulate and imitate grocery store items. So, you’ll have apples that are made from crafted, red, single-use plastic bags that she foraged all over New York. There’s kind of make-believe projects or products that sort of riff off of all the single-use plastics in our world. So, it’s very clever, it’s funny, it’s whimsical. But, of course, underlying all of this, is a very, very serious question.

Cathy Shafran: And that question is?

Matthew VanBesien: Well, that question is, you know, can we actually, as a society, shift–significantly shift–kind of our culture of not just consuming goods, but actually the convenience that we’re so surrounded by each and every day. Since I’ve seen the piece, I’ve just sort of kind of blown away by the amount of single-use plastic that comes our direction each and every day. If you take a trip, if you go to pick up food from a restaurant, if you’re just in the way everyday goods are packaged, I mean, we’re just surrounded by plastic. And the piece really talks a lot, not just about that plastic, but also how long that plastic will be with us in the future.

Cathy Shafran: I understand that, in addition to the store, there’s also short films and there are puppetry, shadow plays, intricate. Is this all at the same location?

Matthew VanBesien: Yes. This is all in the same experience. It lasts about an hour or maybe a little bit less. And so, you will go through this with about 50 other audience members each time. The piece is amazing. It’s only been done in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas, and once in Australia. So, we’re only the sixth location that this work has ever even gone before.

Cathy Shafran: Can you give us the details of when and where and if somebody wants to be part of it, how they can sign up?

Matthew VanBesien: So, you can get on our website which is www dot UMS dot org. It will be probably the first thing that pops up. The Plastic Bag Store opens on Tuesday evening, January 17th. And there are multiple shows–usually multiple shows most days–all the way through February 5th. So, we have a lot of shows that are already sold out, but we have a lot of shows with tickets available. And you can get on our website and find out all about it. And I do want to say that this is not just a UMS project. It’s actually a project that we’ve done in collaboration with the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, the University of Michigan’s Arts Initiative. So, this is a big project, and we have a lot of friends and colleagues who have helped us make it become a reality.

Cathy Shafran: Just one point of clarification for me. We’re talking about art here at the store. We’re not talking about actually going in shopping and purchasing the items. Is that correct?

Matthew VanBesien: That’s correct. So, this is really art. And this is an interesting piece that that sits in between kind of artistic disciplines, if you will. It’s, on one part, kind of an installation, but it’s another part film and kind of an audience experience where you’re moving around and engaging with the art itself.

Cathy Shafran: And, as I understand it, the Plastic Bag Store is just launching the No Safety Net 3.0 activities for you guys. Can you tell me more about that?

Matthew VanBesien: It really is the kickoff event for our third installment of something that we call No Safety Net. And No Safety Net started in 2018, back in the olden days, pre-pandemic. No Safety Net was started as really a way to feature and create sort of a festival around work that is a little bit more daring, work that is sometimes experimental, work that doesn’t fit neatly into the normal sort of programing bucket of a series like UMS.

Cathy Shafran: And so, as I understand it, the No Safety Net is a program that’s going to be using art to look at things, like the environment, climate change, forced immigration. How do you explore all these things using art?

Matthew VanBesien: Our number one thing that we do is we follow artists. We look at what artists are working on. And artists now more than ever, I think, are are looking to express their own thoughts about the major issues of the world. So, you’re absolutely right that No Safety Net works to deal in issues of climate in issues of immigration and refugeeism, all kinds of different issues. Sometimes, they’re comfortable issues, and sometimes, frankly, they’re a little uncomfortable. And we do it with real care and real intention in terms of how we’re presenting that. So, the other works, along with the Plastic Bag Store, are a work by a Belgium theater company called Are We Not Drawn Onward to New Era, which is actually, if you spelled that all out, is a palindrome. And the work is all about kind of using this production, using in kind of very, very innovative stagecraft to to make a comment on the climate crisis. But it’s also a larger question of can we undo things that we’ve done in our society or to our own planet. There’s a work called the Cultural Exchange Rate, which is all about refugeeism and forced migration. There’s two works with a young theater maker from London named Rachel Mars, and those works are “Our Carnal Hearts” and also very, very irreverent but poignant work about sexting and kind of romantic communications. And we also have a digital presentation called “salt:dispersed” by a wonderful artist named Selina Thompson. So, we really have a huge range of work that’s represented in this series. It kicks off with the Plastic Bag Store, but it really encompasses a huge range of artistic sort of lenses and also really subject matter. And it’s really an honor for us to be able to do a festival project like No Safety Net in this way. It’s very different than what we’re doing most of the time at UMS, but it’s very much in keeping with what we’re about.

Cathy Shafran: Matthew VanBesien, president of UMS, the University Musical Society. We thank you so much for joining us. Been very interesting. Thank you.

Matthew VanBesien: Thank you. Take care.

Cathy Shafran: This is 89 one WEMU FM. I’m Cathy Shafran.

This is a link to information about the Plastic Bag Store art installation and immersive experience

This is a link to the series of UMS programs called “No Safety Net”

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *