On the promenade in front of the Gowanus Canal on Saturday, 16
people wearing costumes made of single-use plastic bags performed a dance routine.
On the canal, an EPA Superfund site, a mother and her two children paddled
around in a red canoe and lifejackets
belonging to the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club.
A storyteller by the name Sweet Aminata recounted her first impressions
of the Gowanus Canal when she moved to the neighborhood 27 years ago. “I can
recall the smell,” she said. “A thick stench that followed you down the block.”
All of these activities were part of the Gowanus Visions
festival. I had met the festival’s organizer, Lynn Neuman, two weeks earlier,
when she hosted a trashion workshop at the Artichoke Dance studio, where she’s
artistic director. Trashion (Trash + Fashion) is when you make wearable outfits
from garbage. Before the workshop, I’d never heard of trashion, but the flier
for the June 2 event promised to “provide all the materials and guidance.”
Lynn answered the door holding onto the collar of a golden
doodle named Seraphina. “Are you okay with dogs?” she asked me and my two
friends. We were, and she let go of the collar. Lynn, who is in her forties,
has short brown hair, brown eyes, and the compact body of a dancer. The studio
was bright and open and filled with trash.
Through her work, Lynn explained to us, she hopes to raise
awareness on the destructive environmental impact of plastic, especially single-use
plastic bags. For the last couple years, she and other activists have been
trying to pass plastic bag legislation in New York City. She began collecting
plastic in many forms and integrating the trash into her dance sets, routines,
and costumes. A few months ago, she happily reported, New York finally passed a
ban on single-use plastic bags, which will take effect next year.
One of her projects that day was to make a turtle costume
out of green plastic bags. The turtle was going to march in a parade along the
Coney Island Boardwalk for World Oceans Day on June 8. “The problem with
wearing plastic bags,” said Lynn, “is that it gets very hot. They just don’t
To give us an idea of where we could go with our trashion
creations, she modeled an elastic-waisted skirt made entirely of white and tan
plastic bags. “Over here,” she said, walking toward the iron and ironing board,
bags swishing as she swayed, “I’ll show you how you can do something like
this.” From the ironing board, she picked up two pieces of brown parchment
paper. “If you put the plastic bags in between the parchment paper and iron
them,” she said, the plastics will meld together.”
She showed us our supplies: Boxes full of plastic bottles.
LaCroix cans. Soda can tabs. Piles of plastic bags. Streamers. Yarn. Duct tape.
Bubble wrap. Netting. Pipe cleaners. Egg cartons. Packing material.
As we worked, Lynn talked about the microplastics in the
ocean. Most people, she said, only think of the garbage floating on the
surface—specifically, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a shifting mass of trash
bobbing somewhere between California and Hawaii that spreads out to 610,000
square miles, or about four-and-a-half times the size of Germany. But,
continued Lynn, microplastics were now deep in the ocean, being consumed by sea
life, which means that we’re probably eating plastic, too.
After about 30 minutes, my friend Katherine was the first to
finish. She placed a two-foot-tall clear plastic dome on her head and stood up.
Strips of clear plastic swung from her hips like tentacles. Her chest and
stomach and biceps were wrapped in bubble wrap. “Oh my God, you’re a SQUID,”
said Lynn. “I love it.”
Lynn realizes that even once we’ve acknowledged that “we all
use too much of what we don’t need,” it can be overwhelming to try and change everything.
So she suggested we start with just one act. For example, “Decide not to drink
from a disposable plastic water bottle. Try a metal, reusable one instead,” she
said. Then do another act. Then another. Eventually, it’ll make a difference.
Artichoke Dance’s performance at the Gowanus Visions
festival Saturday was part of Global Water Dances, a grassroots initiative that
asks dance teams of the world to pinpoint a water issue in their community that
impacts the local environment. Lynn picked her neighborhood’s namesake canal as
the community’s water issue and choreographed the performance, which also
included dancers from Murrow High School.
Next to the boathouse, a table with pens and paper invited
people to write down one pledge for a change they can make today. Suggestions
included using reusable bags and water bottles. Or trying to reduce the amount
of water you use during a rainstorm. “During heavy rains, the Gowanus is the
exit way for combined sewage overflow,” Lynn told me as we sat together at a
red picnic table following the day’s last performance. If people in the
neighborhood used less water during a rain storm, she explained, less sewage
would be pumped into the waterway.
Because dance is “a kind of spectacle,” rather than an
off-putting lecture, “it’s a way to get in the back door and make a change,”
Lynn says. During rehearsals, which often take place in public spaces, it’s
common for passersby to ask if they can participate. “Some will be like, ‘Is this an exercise
class? Can we join in?’” She also runs movement and dance workshops that are
free and open to anyone.
Lynn gives credit to her old dog, Sunny, for helping her
notice the amount of litter on the streets and sidewalks of New York. When they
used to go on walks together, Lynn stayed busy making sure he didn’t chew on
the wrong things. She started counting the pieces of trash she would find on short
walks. “It’s amazing how much litter you see when you’re looking for it,” she
said. She pointed to a white plastic bottle top in the dirt in front of us.
“See that?” she said. “That little cap is going to break down into many parts.
Every little piece is going to wind up somewhere,” and that somewhere is
probably the ocean, where birds and fish will consume it. She speaks about a
type of albatross—the Laysan albatross—that likes to feed on things that are
colored red and blue. “They’ll eat plastic thinking it’s food, and the plastic
gets stuck in their intestines,” she said. “They feel full, but they’re not
getting any nutrients.”
When she speaks about these issues, she is serious but not
preachy. I confessed to her that when my friends and I signed up for the
trashion workshop, we were doing it on a bit of a lark. We were expecting her
to be eccentric. “You’re having these intelligent, scary conversations about
the environment at the same time we’re ironing plastic bags for our trashion
outfits,” I said. “That’s kind of a ridiculous backdrop, right?”
“Yes, we might be doing something ridiculous, but isn’t the
whole thing a bit ridiculous?” she asked. “I mean, how did we get to this
point? How did people buy into the fact that they needed what they use?” She
likened our use of plastics to mouthwash. “Nobody knew they had bad breath
until mouthwash came along,” she said. “Then everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, do
I have bad breath?’” Similarly, 50 years ago, you didn’t get a plastic bag at
the grocery store. “People survived,” she said. Each of the dancer’s costumes,
she explained, contain about 150 plastic bags. “That’s, what, 10 trips to the
grocery store?” she said. “Don’t you think it’s a little ridiculous?”
Lynn needed to get to the next event of the festival—a DJ
dance party at a local music venue called Public Records. Before leaving, she
introduced me to one of her dancers, a tall, lanky young man named Aidan
Feldman. He first met Lynn when he was in college at the University of
Michigan, and Lynn was a visiting artist working on a new piece. “I was an
extra in her show,” he said. Then, when he moved to New York, he auditioned for
her dance company. He recalled it was a memorable audition: Lynn told him to
stand in the center of the room, on top of a tumbling mat. “Then,” he said,
“she just ran full-speed and tackled me.”
“Did you fall down?” I asked.
“Yes, but it was on a tumbling mat,” he said. “When I got
up, she was like, ‘Great, you’re hired.’”
That was almost 10 years ago. For his day job, he works in tech. (In
college, he double-majored in dance and computer science.) He loves bouncing
between worlds and using different parts of his mind. He’s also very proud of
the message of the work. “We’re trying to use the platform not just to
entertain but to educate,” he said. “I’ve definitely become more mindful of my
individual decisions and their impact.”
His trashion costume contains 200 plastic bags, and, when
he’s on the way to an event, he said it’s common for people to stop him and ask
questions and take his picture. “I always invite them to performances,” he
A fellow dancer, Malinda Crump, walked up to the picnic
table to tell Aidan goodbye, and she joined us for the last bit of our
conversation. She said that the greatest compliment someone could give her
performance today would be to say, “That really made me think about my own
personal plastic use.” In another
performance, Lynn had used thousands of plastic six-pack rings to build the
set. (In three months, she collected 5,000 plastic six-pack holders from three
local pizzerias.) Aidan said that during the dance, they were ripping the rings
from the ceiling. “It was like it was snowing plastic,” he said.
On the way home from Gowanus Visions and in the days since,
I’ve paid a lot more attention to what I’m stepping over, buying, and throwing
out. I hear Lynn’s voice in my head.
Toward the end of our conversation, Lynn mentioned she had
grown up on the shores of Lake Michigan, where she loved to go swimming. When
she learned that the Great Lakes have some of the highest concentrations of
microplastics seen anywhere in the world, she was scared. “I thought, Oh my
God. Because microplastics are something we don’t see,” she said. “Plastic
bags, we see. But a lot of stuff in the water that we don’t see can be
dangerous to us.”
Through trashion and dance, she’s making the danger more visible.