2012 Essay | BAG Project: Bags Across the Globe

2012 Essay | BAG Project: Bags Across the Globe

Ann Savageau's BAG Project: Design/Art Activism and the Plastic Bag Problem

Heath Massey

Plastic bags are a scourge on the environment.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that worldwide use of plastic bags ranges from 500 billion to one trillion plastic shopping bags annually.  Barely recyclable (less than 1% are recycled), they are discarded in huge numbers, clogging landfills and entering marine ecosystems with disastrous results.  Marine animals suffer particularly from plastic bag pollution when they become entangled or ingest small plastic particles that are suspended in the water as the bags fall apart.  While images of bag-plastered beaches and strangled birds hover at the edges of public awareness, for the most part we think of plastic bags as convenient, free and disposable.  Few realize that the state of California alone spends $25 million annually to manage plastic bag pollution and the manual labor required to remove plastic bags from jammed recycling machinery adds incalculably to the cost of recycling.

 
 

 
Ann Savageau’s Bags Across the Globe (BAG) project addresses these issues.  Beginning in 2008, Savageau, assisted by students in the Design Program at UC Davis where she is a professor, began creating reusable shopping bags, repurposing fabric swatches used in interior design projects and exhibit banners used to advertise events on the UC Davis campus. Savageau reached out to friends and strangers around the world, distributing the beautiful, repurposed cloth bags free of cost, with the goal of bringing attention to environmental problems caused by disposable plastic bags, as well as the problem of textile waste.  The BAG project has produced a global network of BAG recipients spanning 62 countries.  Savageau has received a flood of postcards from BAG recipients, reflecting their enthusiasm for the project and the collective sense of environmental activism that the bags have generated.  For example, Nora Owusu Afriyie, wrote from Ghana:  

I don't know whether you have been in Ghana before but I must confess that we have a lot of problems with plastic bags, because they are used almost everywhere and they are dumped almost everywhere. Most streets are littered, except for highways and some few streets. That is why I want to participate in your project. Cloth bags can last a lifetime; are stronger than plastic bags; are not harmful to the society. Thanks for the great idea. I admire people who do their best to make the world a better place, to make it better than they met it.

Savageau’s work straddles art, design and activism.  She has long been interested in the interaction of the natural world and human culture, often combining manmade and natural objects in her work and focusing on processes of decay and evidence of past use in everyday objects that are normally considered ugly, or merely utilitarian.  Increasingly, she has focused on wasteful consumption and unsustainable practices that are contributing to growing environmental crises around the world.  The BAG project frames plastic bags through this lens and represents Savageau’s growing interest in art as activism.  Showcasing the environmental harm caused by plastic bags both conceptually and practically, in the BAG project Savageau addresses artists’ responsibility, as citizens of the world, to not merely draw attention to environmental problems, but to try and solve them … a responsibility that Savageau takes very seriously.  The project has led to workshops and seminars in Colombia, Japan and England. Savageau traveled to India in 2010 to visit a related project run by the organization Conserve India.  Hiring urban “rag pickers” in Delhi to collect and refashion plastic bags into handbags and other products, Conserve India is working, like Savageau and her students, to create something positive out of the disaster of plastic bags in the environment.   

In art installations related to the BAG project, Savageau has memorably and meaningfully highlighted aspects of the damage caused by plastic bags.  For example, for one exhibit she crafted a dramatic floor-to-ceiling tornado from 1000 plastic bags, evoking the interaction of extremely lightweight plastic with atmospheric storm conditions.  Not coincidentally, 1000 is the average number of plastic bags used annually per couple in California.  Nearby, in the same gallery, she displayed a large camel bezoar (a mass of indigestible material trapped in the gastrointestinal system) composed of plastic bags, encased like a precious artifact in a glass case on a pedestal.  The fibrous mass, flecked with bits of color, is both a beautiful and horrifying product of plastic bags in the environment.
 

Toomas Tivel 

 
For the installation at SOFA CHICAGO, Savageau creates a huge shopping bag, 11 feet tall and 7 feet wide, composed of actual white, disposable plastic shopping bags.  Upended and suspended from the ceiling, the huge bag rains an array of reusable cloth bags, metaphorically representing the transformation from disposable plastic to reusable (and repurposed) cloth.

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Heath Massey, Professor Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design, Department of Human Ecology, UC Davis. 

This essay appears in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2012 special exhibit Bags Across the Globe (BAG), created by Ann Savageau, artist and professor, with the assistance of Chris Beer, principal curator, UC Davis Design Museum, and design student Jessica Dutt. Presented by Design Department, University of California, Davis


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