Dancers from the Artichoke Dance Company perform at Gowanus Visions. (Photos: Laura Lee Huttenbach)

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 Neuman, modeling trashion at the workshop. (Photo: Laura Lee Huttenbach)

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 breathe well.”

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.”

(Photo: Laura Lee Huttenbach)

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.”

Trashion workshop participants, wearing their designs, with Lynn Neuman. (Photo: Laura Lee Huttenbach)

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 said.

Lynn Neuman giving instructions to her dancers during rehearsal for Global Water Dances Day. (Photo: Laura Lee Huttenbach)

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.