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Bathing Exchange: An Interview with Kri Van Sloun

Pictured above: Kri Van Sloun in Danielle Levsky’s bathtub just before being interviewed by Levsky/Photo: Danielle Levsky

CW: Mentions of alcoholism, addiction, abusive relationships, anxiety

Kri Van Sloun came over to my apartment on Thursday afternoon on May 10. I immediately noticed their brightness and fearlessness as they stepped through my doorway. While we waited for the tub to fill up with hot water, I offered La Croix (lime-flavored) and dried dates while we talked about favorite recipes, nudity in bathhouses, menstruation, lactose intolerance, being a warrior while eating sushi, Van Sloun’s “crazy art car,” toxic masculinity… and then we started my interview.

Van Sloun is the “architect of The Bathtub Project.” Their project is intentionally focused on vulnerability and intimacy, as well as “creating space for artists, activists and humans of all kinds to fully share thoughts, fears, dreams and life experiences.” In my bathroom, they added green food dye to my tub, while I added in some bath salts and rose petals. I crawled into the tub and they began to record our conversation.

During the interview and experience, I was reminded of childhood baths, where I would float and splash in the water for what seemed like forever. Later in my life, I would take baths where I primarily spent the duration of them splashing around and practicing my singing. My most recent baths have been filled with more solitude – with the exception of my family’s cat, Roma, who attempted to understand the large clouds of soapy foam that surrounded me with her paw.

After my interview was finished, I switched places with Van Sloun. They crawled into my bathtub and got comfortable. I snapped photos of them from various different angles. Then, I took their spot, sitting on the floor against the bathroom door.

・・・

I love that tattoo you have that says “fuck you, pay me.”

Van Sloun: My friend Erin did that. It’s one of my favorites and it’s supposed to be about emotional labor. This woman asked me to build her a website. And I told her my rates. And she said, “Oh, I meant for free.”

That’s… not a free thing.

Van Sloun: Yeah! Also, I gave a rate for less than what other people would normally ask. I was keeping in mind that this a new business, but you still have to pay me! So, I didn’t do it for her, and now we’re not that close anymore. I said, “I’m not doing free labor!” I’m 28 and I think she’s looking for interns.

To not pay them, as well? Fuck that.

Van Sloun: Yeah. Also, I was struggling with a friend who needed a lot of support and I wasn’t supporting myself because i was putting myself up for them and i got to a point where I was like fuck all of this, fuck all of you, fuck you, pay me. Like, everyone! And that’s why I got it. You can’t see it because normally I wear shirts where it’s not visible. So I told my mom about it. I got my neck tattooed yesterday. I told my mom I was going to do that and she said, “As long it’s not obscene,” and I said, “It’s not like the fuck you pay me one.” And I didn’t tell her that I got that tattoo, apparently. And she’s like, “Kri!” I said, “You can’t see it unless I’m naked in front of you, which I don’t think will happen anytime soon.” She said, “Okay.”

Kri Van Sloun in Danielle Levsky’s bathtub just before being interviewed by Levsky/Photo: Danielle Levsky

She’s really, really lovely and very conservative. We have a really good relationship, which I find hilarious because we are so different. But we respect each other. When I told her I was getting a tattoo, she asked me why. I told her, “There are options of me not telling you and you seeing it the next time I visit, or me telling you and preparing you.” And she said, “What’s option three?” And I said, “There is no option three.” And she said, “Well, I’m happy you told me.” It’s good for how different we are.

I had always wanted tattoos, and wanted the same tattoos since I was 16. And my mom knew that. And I was like, “This is what I’m getting!” She had seen my sketches, knew about the placement of them. Then year 18 rolls around and I was ready to get a tattoo. She said to me, “Danielle, I need to talk to you.”

Van Sloun: [Laughs]

I said, Mom, I’m getting a tattoo. And she said, “Okay, so, I am so proud of you and love you and want you to do whatever you want to do with your life. Like anything. Anyone you want to talk to, anything you want to do, I support you! But please, if you love me, you won’t get a tattoo.”

Van Sloun: That’s… Rough. I think I had a similar talk with my mom and I said, “If you would love me, you would accept that I’m doing this.” And that’s kind of like a standoff. I think that’s what I said when I was 18. I was also kind of a dick. [Laughs]

No, no, that’s totally fair. But then my mom also said, “I don’t know how your grandma would feel about it,” then she brought up family and history and Jewish trauma…

Van Sloun: That’s some huge baggage that goes with tattoos and Judaism. If that was part of my heritage, I would respect that baggage, but I’m white, so… [Laughs] I have no heritage to disrespect except super racist asshole douchebags, and I’m super down to disrespect them.

I also knew that she wasn’t commanding me to not get one. She said, “Please, don’t do this.” It was an ask. That’s why she knew it would work with me.

Van Sloun: Mine was more of a command and that’s why it didn’t work with me.

Commands don’t work with me. But yeah, you have some some really gorgeous pieces.

Van Sloun: At this point, I’m so covered. I love my tattoos. I love my stomach tattoo that says “love the chub.” My wedding band is a tattoo. I’m happy with the way it all came out. I don’t wear jewelry, so I think of it as my version of jewelry. I had my nose pierced several times because I’ll get a sinus infection or something. And so, I don’t wear any jewelry at this point. I feel like tattoos are my version of adorning myself. People will decorate with stuff. I normally wear one color clothing.

I also love when people wear a lot of jewelry, have a lot of tattoos and wear super-printy things. I think, “You’re so loud, I love it.”

Van Sloun: I’m very much the emperor of there’s no right way to do something! And that goes for everything in my life. If there was one day where I was like, “I’m gonna wear bubblegum pink and dye my hair that color and rock it!” I would not feel bad about it for a second. There’s no right way to do something.

Speaking of no right way to do something, tell me about how this project got started.

Van Sloun: I quit drinking, so this is actually the first time I’m actually speaking about that. In past interviews, I’ve talked about it a little.

Feel free to share as much as you’d like.

Van Sloun: I think that is how the project started though. I was a really hardcore alcoholic, majority of my adult life from when I was 18 until when I quit drinking. I always thought I was this amazing artist because I had all these grand ideas and wrote poetry when tipsy and I always wanted to be in a band. Instead, I was just a part of the punk community, where everyone drank a lot. It’s very easy to hide addiction if everyone is drinking when we go out. But luckily, the music community in DC isn’t all about getting fucked up. I just made it all about getting fucked up. Some other people do, as well. In the Midwest, drinking is such a huge culture. And that’s everywhere, but the punk DIY community in D.C. wasn’t revolving around alcohol, I just was. So, I accidentally got sober and was just hungover for days and didn’t drink. I just kept not drinking and I got really bored. Because I was spending hours every day being hungover and shit faced.

I had one of my friends come over. I was having a really bad day at work. She asked me what I wanted to do and I said, “I want to take a fucking bath.” And she said, “Let’s do it!” She was really supportive of me not drinking anymore and so we took a bath together. We had a really real conversation.

After that, I started thinking I was going to shows and being a part of the punk scene and not drinking. And I thought, “Why can’t people be vulnerable without substances?” And some people can, but I was learning that for the first time. And that’s how this project started. So, I’m over two years sober now. And the project started May 9, two years ago, actually.

It’s the day after the anniversary of the project!

Van Sloun: My first interview was with Christopher Smith, who is amazing. He’s a friend of mine who is really proud of my sobriety. I asked him, will you do this weird thing? And he said yes, absolutely. And that’s how this whole thing got started.

I just think it’s such a cool and beautiful project. When I was first looking at it, I focused on the photos. They’re really raw and beautiful and every person’s character and personality is on display, because they are in such a vulnerable state. Then, I started reading the interviews and it became even more beautiful to me.

Kri Van Sloun in Danielle Levsky’s bathtub just before being interviewed by Levsky/Photo: Danielle Levsky

Van Sloun: The photo is the draw, or the hook, but the interviews is what this project is. It’s not just people, it’s who the people are. As an artist, I thought I was so amazing and talented and great, when I was fucked up, I realized I didn’t know a lot of answers to the questions I asked. It’s a way for me to figure it out and a way for me not to focus on myself as an artist. I’m definitely the artist behind it, but it’s a different relationship because it only exists because of other people. Yeah I’m doing this thing… and it doesn’t exist without you getting in the tub. I like that the focus isn’t on me. I appreciate everybody that’s been involved because of that and wants to continue to be involved and wants to share themselves because there’s such a little platform to really share yourself and do it in a very raw way.

I think it’s really interesting what you said about the questions you’re asking people you don’t often know the answers to yourself. How did you choose the questions? Some of the questions remain the same for every interview, then other questions change depending on the person you’re talking to. Can you tell me about both of those processes?

Van Sloun: With the questions that are the same, everyone has passions, everyone has struggles, everyone has accomplishments. The first two questions are to get everyone acclimated to being in a bathroom with a person you don’t know, because it’s a weird thing that I’m used to but other people are not. It’s an acclimation to the situation. The other ones, I didn’t know what I was proud of when I started the project. I really felt like a raw, open, gaping wound that was just trying to heal myself. So hearing other people having struggles and passions and accomplishments helped me find my own.

The questions that aren’t the same are normally because of what people want to talk about. If people are referencing a certain thing over and over again, I want them to tell me more. Actually tell me more, don’t gloss over it, let’s get into it. So that’s why there are questions that are different. The interviews are always geared toward the individual and what they want to talk about.

I’d probably do the same thing if I was in your shoes. Over the past two years, have there been any challenging moments in this project or ones that have been painful?

Van Sloun: Yes, definitely. There were two interviews that were one day apart. I’ve done several interviews in a day before, and that’s exhausting, but for these two interviews… there was a  woman who found her life again through fire dance after an extremely abusive relationship. And my first romantic relationship was really brutal and it brought up those feelings for me, like, oh yeah, abusive relationships, I forgot about that. And hearing her speak about it was very intense and beautiful. The other person I interviewed was having a really rough time with eating disorders and anxiety and imposter syndrome type of stuff.

I actually waited three or four days to transcribe the interviews, because after hearing it, I needed a minute to rethink myself. I had eating disorders throughout high school and I have really intense, crippling anxiety. Luckily, I don’t have imposter syndrome, but they were bringing up all these large character traits that they have, that I had kind of forgotten about in myself. Those people mean a lot to me for sharing it and letting me experience it with them, as well as reminding me that I still have things to work on.

So, they were very difficult and really beautiful, but I always think that broken things are the best. If I meet someone who seems very well adjusted to their life, I typically don’t trust them. No, you’re not real, you’re a robot.

Or you’re trying to cover something up.

Van Sloun: Or you’re from the Matrix. Those are the options. [Laughs] I get freaked out by people who seem very well adjusted. That comes from how I was not well-adjusted for so much of my life. Now, I feel like I’m pretty well adjusted, but if anyone digs a little deeper, they hear actual parts of my story with very real struggles. And they think, okay, you’re not well adjusted; we can move on now. I like hearing those parts of ourselves that are kind of broken and it being okay. It’s the biggest part of it. You can be a little fucked up and still be okay. I really love that mindset.

Two years. That’s a long time. Have there been moments that you wanted to quit?

Van Sloun: Ah, a couple. Normally, whenever I want to quit, I take a break, because this is on my timeline. If I wrote a grant and quit my job, I could complete the whole project in a year—easy. And I don’t want to write a grant and make this my job because I would end up hating it and not want to complete it, as well as I couldn’t allow myself to take breaks. I got married in April last year. It was cute. He’s the best. We got married and went on our honeymoon, and I didn’t do any interviews for that month, because why the fuck would I do that to myself? So, whenever I want to quit, I take a breather and I love it again. My relationship with the work, the art I do, is very separated from my identity. I don’t view myself as my art or the work I do. I definitely feel healthier when I’m working on things. It feels stable and grounding but there’s a separation to it. That separation allows me to leave and come back and not have bad feelings.

I think I’m still working on that.

Van Sloun: It’s not an easy thing. It’s a learned and constantly reminded thing.

It’s hard to tell people who I am through the lens of my art, my writing. Somehow, being a theater and performance editor has given me a legitimacy that I didn’t have before, which I kind of think is bullshit.

Van Sloun: Yeah! [Laughs]

I’m the same person, doing the same thing; I just do more of it, now, and encourage other people to do it, too. Which I was already doing! But just on a smaller scale. It’s annoying now because people who didn’t see me as much before, now come to me and I wonder “where were you before when I was doing the same thing but I wasn’t an editor”? And then there have been others who tell me “you’re a writer, but you’re not a journalist, not really.”

Van Sloun: Tell them to “shove it up your ass.”

Yeah! I’m like, “Um…!”

Van Sloun: “Go away!”

But also, I wonder if I need to identify myself as those things? Do I need to tie my identity into my writing?

Van Sloun: Those questions are completely up to you. If someone asked me “who are you?” I would tell them “I’m somebody who farts a lot and hangs out with my dog. And I make really good banana bread. Do you want to go and do stuff?” I really like building sandcastles. I’m so excited for the summer.

I haven’t built a sandcastle in forever! You know which ones I like to build? The ones where you take wet sand, drip it down and it makes an evil castle? I would always make them and pretend that they were the lairs of evil queens or kings, or some kind of like underworld master. It always looks so eerie. I would make little dungeons next to the castle and think “this is where people got tortured!” And my parents always looked at me a little bewildered like, “what are you…?”

Van Sloun: That’s kind of awesome. So, my dad and I, growing up, we would always build sandcastles. Massive fucking ones. Bigger than this bathtub. For my 28th birthday, my spouse Kerem and I went to Cocoa Beach, Florida, where his mom lives, so we were there for four days in the middle of February. It was amazing. We built a sandcastle on my birthday. I love building sandcastles! With a knife and a spoon.

Kri Van Sloun in Danielle Levsky’s bathtub just before being interviewed by Levsky/Photo: Danielle Levsky

Oh wow, that’s amazing. I’m just a casual, drippy castle person!

Van Sloun: All castles are good castles! Again, there’s no wrong way to build a castle. But that’s what I mean with my identity. I build sandcastles? Sure.

Yeah, identity is fluid.

Van Sloun: Yeah. I relish in the fact that it’s fluid, because, again, there’s no wrong way to do anything!

You and your spouse have very good names.

Van Sloun: Yeah, we do! And he took my last name when we got married. I started the Bathtub Project before we met, and we were talking about it, and I said, “I don’t want to change my last name, because you can Google me and funny things come up. And I want to keep that.” His immediate response was, “I’ll change mine. That makes sense.”

Aw, that’s beautiful.

Van Sloun: He’s lovely. He’s my favorite.

My partner and I were thinking of ways we could combine our last names together for our children, because neither of us are going to change our last names. We have all our work and art tied to each of our names. So we’re thinking about “Crespolevsky,” which is a little long but has a nice ring to it. And anyway, when my family first immigrated here, their full last name was Mogilevsky, and then we shortened it, so we’d just be making it long again!

Van Sloun: Yeah! Why the fuck not! There’s no wrong way to do things! That’s the theme of today.

But then, people typically just call us “The Dans.”

Van Sloun: We get called “The Ks.” Our friends are like, “Oh, we’re hanging out with The Ks!” That’s kind of cute and also I hate it. I get it… but… The Dans is nice.

It’s like a band name.

Van Sloun: We have a friend named Sarah, and her girlfriend’s name is also Sara. And I think, “Oh, that’s a lot…” But they think it makes sense because one of their names is without an “h.” I don’t get it, but sure. Yes to that. They’re so cute. Sarah a hat that has an H on it, and then Sara was wearing it and I got confused. [Laughs]

[Laughs] You mentioned that you were thinking of making this project into a book. What do you hope the book will do for you and the people who want to read it?

Van Sloun: At this point, it’s been two years. I might get the first 100 interviews published and later get the rest published, but I just want to have the work I spent years doing and I want to be able to hold it, physically. I want to be like “I did this thing!” and have it. I was also doing some marketing research, which is super boring and makes me gag, but we were looking into should we even turn it into a book? I was thinking I would have one myself because I fucking want that. But the point of turning it into a book is for those people involved to feel like they’re a part of this thing. It’s a really weird way of saying that you have a community, but being in a book about vulnerability and transparency, to me is a monumental thing. You were a part of these people who saw value in being honest with yourself and others. So you wanted to do this. And so here you are, on these pages with so many other beautiful people. It’s the same thing as the website; it makes you less alone. To have a physical object that you’re holding and feeling less alone, is a little bit different than screaming into the void of the internet. I mainly want to have it for myself because I did a fucking thing, and then for other people to resonate with others’ voices and know that that exists.

They can see themselves.

Van Sloun: Every interview I’ve done, there is something I resonate really intensely with. So I feel like other people might have the same thing.

Reading through those interviews, I also thought, “Wow, I’ve felt that way before.” There are a lot of universal, human qualities that we all experiences, but maybe at different severity levels.

Van Sloun: Yeah, it’s part of the human condition, especially with how technology is growing. We isolate ourselves. People who are really into technology don’t see it as isolation, they see it as expansion and having connections across the world. I’m one of the people that views it as isolation. Even though I have so many people who follow my Facebook or Instagram or whatever-the-fuck-bot form, it doesn’t really matter when I’m having a rough day. But going to a website and reading other people’s strength and accomplishments and struggles makes me think, “I’m not fucking alone.” Having a physical book of that will be a great reminder. I haven’t put the work into it yet. I moved to Chicago from DC in May 2017. Right now, we’re working on putting up The Wooden Needle, our pop-up shop for upcycled art and home goods. All of our price points will be accessible. Instead of being like, “Buy this lamp for $600 because it’s upcycled and one-of-a-kind!” we’re going to sell it for $60, so you can afford it, bro. We just did our first pop up last weekend at the Wasteshed [2842 West Chicago Avenue].

We’re moving soon, so please let me know about the next time you’re having a pop up!

Van Sloun: Yeah! So that’s been taking up a lot of time, but publishing is definitely on the menu.

When I was first looking at the website, I recalled my own memories of playing in the tub, talks with myself and my imagination, fantasy environments… But I also remembered all the art house films I’d seen in my life where people would be in bathtubs together and have very deep and emotional conversations. Lots of French movies. Possibly too many French movies. I don’t know.

Van Sloun: [Laughs] Maybe they need to branch out.

Maybe not. Maybe it’s their thing. There’s that one movie with Robin Williams, Moscow on the Hudson, where there’s this memorable scene where he’s in the bathtub with his lover. It’s just beautiful. Those were my first impressions. Those were my memories and ideas. What do you think about first impressions, perhaps first impressions to baths or the project overall?

Van Sloun: So, bathtubs have always been a really big thing in my life. Whenever I felt bad, I would always take a bath. Even when I was getting fucked up, I’d take a bath once a week and think about the things I did poorly that week and the things I wanted to do better the next week. And that was my time to marinate in my juices and thoughts for what I wanted for my future self. So it was very much a self-care thing. I’ve only smoked one cigarette in one or two bathtubs, and that’s a very French film thing that has stuck with me. I’m like, “I want to smoke a cigarette in a bathtub, that sounds great!” So I think cinema has definitely influenced my romanticizing bathtubs, but it’s also a part of my history and where I regained my sense of self.

Last question: When you walked in here, what were your first thoughts, first impressions of the bathtub, of me, of the space?

Van Sloun: Oh, well the apartment building freaked me out! The person had me sign in then told me to go down the hallway to the door on my left. I got in the elevator with this couple, who I’m pretty sure were from Europe, and they looked kind of bewildered and very nicely dressed, posh people. And I was like “What the fuck am I doing here? Okay?” I was into it, but I was also like, “This building is ridiculous.” I interviewed a couple of people in DC who were fairly wealthy and had apartments like this, because I was scared to go into it, because I had never been in a place this nice. But now, I can go in here and it’s fine. And then, my first impression of you, is that you come off as a writer. You come off as someone who knows how to interview people. Because you had snacks! Most people that have interviewed me and we’ve been in the same location, have been prepared in that same way. You definitely fit who I’m used to interviewing me, which I’m down with. You definitely seem like a writer. And the apartment is funny.

・・・

The Bathtub Project is updated by Van Sloun with every interview they have. You can view Van Sloun’s interview of Levsky here. All the interviews and accompanying photos can be viewed at thebathtubproject.com; more information is available on the Instagram at instagram.com/thebathtubproject and Facebook at facebook.com/thebathtubproject. To learn more about Wooden Needle, visit instagram.com/woodenneedlechicago.

Danielle Levsky (she/her/hers) is the DIY Theater/Performance Editor of Scapi Magazine. She is also a poet, essayist, lover, mystic, Jew, intersectional feminist, vocalist and instructional designer. In addition to her work at Scapi, she has covered community news, arts/culture reviews, lifestyle editorials and arts/culture events for several publications. Learn more about her and her work at her portfolio, or connect with her on FacebookInstagram or Twitter.

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