At the end of an especially bad day a few months ago, all Kri Van Sloun wanted was to take a bath. A friend came over with ice cream, borrowed a swimsuit, and joined Van Sloun in the tub.
“The whole thing was so ridiculous and funny,” says Van Sloun, a 26-year-old DC artist and caretaker of people with intellectual disabilities who goes by the pronouns they/them/their. “And we had a really honest conversation…we were able to be fully present and hear where the other person was at.”
Inside the tub, they felt a profound intimacy with each other, and it made Van Sloun rethink the experience of taking a bath. What if it wasn’t just something you did by yourself or with your significant other?
Van Sloun answered that question with the Bathtub Project. Van Sloun goes to a person’s house—a friend, acquaintance or referral—armed with Lush bath balls and soaps, gets in the tub with them (either naked or clothed, whatever they prefer) and conducts an interview about their hopes, dreams, and fears. Van Sloun then takes a portrait and, with the help of their partner Mandi Jo Stoll, uploads it on the website and Instagram along with the interview. It’s like Humans of New York, but everyone’s really clean.
“Artistically, I’m creating a space for someone else to be free and talk about themselves without being censored,” Van Sloun says. They’ve done 17 interviews in DC so far and plan to do 200 and publish them all in a book. They’re also bringing the project to Philadelphia, Chicago, and Portland.
Along with creating a unique explorative space, the project is also trying to normalize nudity. “Taking away this idea that nudity is always sexualized is really lovely,” Van Sloun says. Since starting the project three months ago, Van Sloun says they’ve become much more comfortable with their body, with or without clothes.
Alice Peck, 26, lived near Van Sloun when they lived at the Lamont Street Collective (a longtime Mount Pleasant group house of artists and activists who were recently evicted and relocated). Peck heard about the project and liked the idea of the exploring vulnerability, so she decided to participate.
Van Sloun came to Peck’s house one morning and went through a process of consent, where Peck and Van Sloun agreed they’d both be naked. While in the tub together, Peck said she was less nervous about being naked with someone else and more with “the fact that it has an audience and that it’s on the Internet. That made me feel most vulnerable.”
Ultimately, though, if the project helps people see the human body in a non-sexualized way and compels others to take part in the project, themselves, it’s worth it to Peck.
If you want to participate in the Bathtub Project, you can contact Van Sloun through the website. If you don’t have a tub, don’t worry—Van Sloun brings a big rubbermaid container to use instead.