By Matt Ingram
“How full?” I ask.
“Pretty full,” says the blue-haired, genderqueer and very opinionated Kri Van Sloun, who goes by the pronouns they and them. We’re standing together in my cramped, shared bathroom, watching my bathtub fill with water. In a few minutes, I’ll undress, climb in, and Van Sloun will take my picture. Then they’ll get in the tub with me. This is not a typical Wednesday night.
I’m participating in The Bathtub Project, an interview-based experiential art project currently making rounds in D.C. Van Sloun is the architect behind the project, and a “shitty iPad” is their tool of the trade (their words, not mine).
The Bathtub Project is part photography, part documentary journalism, part performance art. It started when Van Sloun, who doesn’t drink or smoke, had an extra-stressful day. Not wanting to break plans with a friend because of a bad mood but still wanting to decompress, Van Sloun suggested that the friends put on swimsuits, take a dip in the tub and chat.
At the time, Van Sloun was working as a caregiver for folks with intellectual disabilities, a job they say taught them how to stop “posturing” for people and be completely present. That night in the tub, Van Sloun felt that same sense of authenticity with their friend and decided it was something others should experience. The idea for the project began to take shape.
Van Sloun asserts that experiential art is their favorite kind, and that is exactly what The Bathtub Project is. In every instance, Van Sloun attempts to bring you to that open emotional space by joining you in the tub and mirroring your chosen state of undress (the gallery includes everything from the completely nude to the fully clothed.) Then, sitting together with you in a tiny body of water made colorful, shiny and nicely scented by a LUSH bath bomb (“I buy them in bulk!”), Van Sloun gets to know you.
In the spirit of adventure, I opt for full nudity. I only met Van Sloun a couple hours earlier over a cup of coffee at Colony Club in Park View, but already they’ve made me feel like a friend. It helps to get to know someone before they pose for you naked in a bathtub, Van Sloun says. I take their word for it.
“I’m going to give you a minute,” they say, stepping out of the bathroom as I step into my now glittering, blue bathtub. I yell through the door that I’m in, and Van Sloun returns to take some pictures. They’ll pick the ones they like and let me choose from the best which I’d like them to publish.
Then Van Sloun sheds their clothes and climbs in. I’m surprised by how unfazed I am sitting across from them. They prop up their iPad with its case, set the camera to record a video and look me in the eyes — “Are you ready?”
You can read all the transcripts, mine included, on The Bathtub Project’s website. Speaking with Van Sloun in the tub is a pretty singular experience. They allow you the space to think and respond without interruption. They ask questions that pry at your imagination — What kind of sea creature would you be? — and your sense of self — What’s your greatest accomplishment? — but their mission, Van Sloun says, is to give participants the chance to be heard, whatever that means for the individual.
The Bathtub Project feels kind of like the ethos of Marina Abromavić’s The Artist is Present has put on a DIY cloak and descended on the bathtubs of D.C., where the little vulnerabilities we all squirrel away as humans can be methodically, consensually drawn out and shared. But it’s very much its own project as well, a co-opting of an everyday space in order to inject it with a little magic.
For now, Van Sloun’s goals are to complete 200 interviews, secure some grant funding and eventually publish a book. They’re about to depart on a “bathtub tour,” which will let friends and strangers across the country participate in the project. From there, they envision taking the format abroad and using it as a way to give voice to the traditionally voiceless.
Anyone can volunteer for the project by contacting Van Sloun through the website, and they will typically come to you (unless you don’t have a bathtub, in which case Van Sloun will offer the services of their very capable Rubbermaid container.) The Bathtub Project will most likely not be like anything you’ve done before. It’s a worthwhile endeavor in self-examination, thoughtful conversation and bath bombs that will leave you emotionally refreshed and smelling damn good.