Q&A: Ken Ferguson, the guy who used Bunz to get strangers to let him bathe in their homes
Bunz, a Toronto-based app that helps people arrange swaps of things they own (sort of a like a barter-system version of Craigslist or Kijiji), takes pride in the artist-type congeniality of its loyal users, known as “buns,” who might trade jeggings, cashews, Don DeLillo novels, dog-walking services or home-cooked meals. Genuine human interaction is part of the appeal, and nobody provides more of it than Ken Ferguson, an actor who plays a central role in a new Bunz documentary, ISO: Tall Cans, Tokens & Compassion, which premiered last Thursday at Dundas Video. Ferguson is best known for using Bunz to bathe in strangers’ homes, which he did every day throughout the month of January. We caught up with him, between soaks.
So, why baths?
I was out on a Bunz trade, swapping a shelf for some home-cooked food, and my host invited me into her home for a chat. She had a bathtub and I said I envied her, because I don’t have a tub—and then a lightbulb turned on: I could trade for a bath. I sat on the idea for about a year, because it was a bit weird, but with all of the hateful garbage that had been coming out in the media in 2016 I decided to do it, to make people laugh and try to give some relief during a shitty time in a lot of people’s lives.
How did it become a bath-a-day thing?
I started with friends. And then to friends-of-friends, and then to complete strangers. I was willing to trade tea, fruit or meals, but most people didn’t want anything; they just wanted to hang out and meet new people and have a silly story to tell. I started in the tub alone, but people started joining me in the room, and then the conversations got deeper and some people even got naked in the tub with me and hung out.
What is this, then? An art project? A social experiment?
My goal was just to make people feel better and laugh. I started getting messages from people thanking me and complimenting me, and I was elated.
Even very open-minded people might have reservations about letting a complete stranger bathe in their home. How do you gauge your host’s comfort level before jumping into the tub?
I always talk with the people first and determine what they prefer: naked or in underwear. As the project got more well known, I felt safer going to people’s homes. One host had me over while her husband was away, and I got to hang out with her and her three-year-old daughter. When she put her daughter down for a nap, she left me alone for about 15 minutes downstairs. I could have trashed her place or stolen something, but she trusted me enough to let me into their home. And I actually started crying, because I was touched. I cried a few times during this project.
You’re gay, and you’ve said before that your sexual orientation helps people feel comfortable around you. Can you explain?
I think it did. I seem way less threatening, especially since most of my hosts have been women—I think because women are encouraged to talk and be artistic and explore. I wish I had more straight men as hosts, because it would make me feel like we’re actually moving forward as a society. I think being a gay man has given me a better understanding of both men and women, and I think a lot more straight men need gay friends.
Were you surprised that people were so willing to open up to you?
I was surprised. One friend said that I was taking a very private space where people are often alone with their thoughts and opening it up to discussion, and that’s why she wasn’t surprised I was getting these raw stories.
Is it easier to open up to strangers?
Than some of my family and friends? Yes.
But it’s also mostly a party, isn’t it? You’ve been bathed in beer, plastic balls, cereal, milk, and body paint. One host serenaded you with a ukulele.
Yeah. It’s ironic, too, because I was sober during the month of January and that was the time I got offered the most alcohol.
You’ve been described by the film’s director, Justin Lee, as the “poster boy” for Bunz. How would you describe the Bunz community?
I would say that the Bunz community is largely an artistic, open-minded, friendly group of weirdos and goofballs, or people that at least appreciate eccentricities. Most importantly, they’re all unified in the misery that is the high cost of living in Toronto.
What’s next? More baths?
Since being covered by the media I’ve received invitations to bathe in over 20 countries around the world. And a bunch of people were encouraging me to start a GoFundMe to do a documentary. I’m probably starting with Switzerland and then off to Germany.
Do you offer to rinse out the bathtub after you use it?
How dirty do you think I am?
Ken Ferguson’s greatest baths
The body paint bath:
January 31st, 2017 This was the last bath of the month, and of my project, before I got a little support to start an international effort and started to apply for grants. Bunz member Alison Sharp is a makeup artist in the city of Toronto who lured me in with the promise of doing something fun with her skills. She has an amazing piece of artwork in her bathroom with some vibrant rainbow colours and palm trees, she wanted to base her work off of. She invited photographer Eddie O'Keefe and makeup artist Jacqueline Payne over to be a part of the experience too and we had a bathtub party. They decided that they were going to cover me in paint as my last bath, and at the last second, Daily Vice showed up with a reporter and two camera operators, @heyimandy @tomasurbina . Alison, Eddie, Jacqueline, and I, all talked about the careers that we had had before, and the careers that we sometimes have to have, to support our art. Alison talked to me about her appreciation of the human body as a canvas and the dynamic nature of having a moving, living, 3-dimensional canvas. This was an interesting bath because I wasn’t able to speak for vast portions of it, or see things, which provided moments for me to just listen and think. This also resulted in me smashing my face at one point against the faucet. We talked about the future of this project and how it all blew up and my Go Fund Me that I was about to set up. Eddie and I have planned a couple more shoots that go along with the bathtub theme. I love the collaborations that have come of this project and the people and stories I have made. I am continuing to have baths, just not at the same frequency, and am trying to plan a party and some other fun things. Stay tuned! #bathtubsofbunz #bunz #weirdo #jan31st #letyourfreakflagfly #toronto #lovetoronto #art #painting #bunz4ever #letyourhairdown #baths #relax #clean #newyear #newyearnewme #2017 @jaclynhaley @heyimandy @alisonsharp
The Barbie bath:
The bicycle bath:
January 18th, 2017 I went to the home of massage therapist, Radha Pithadia, a beautiful woman, inside and out, with the kind of calm and welcoming spirit you experience from those people you know are born healers. Radha and I had traded a couple of times and met when we were selected to be part of the Globe and Mail's article on Bunz. Radha and I discovered that we are both cyclists in the city and share the same passion for cleaner air, healthier bodies and keeping the city traffic jam free. When I approached her with the idea of having my bike in the bathroom, after an interview with Dandyhorse Magazine, she showed no hesitation to my ideas. I'm continually energized that my project is inspiring others to come up with creative ideas for these baths. We talked about regrets we've had in past relationships and mistakes we've made and how we're continually looking for improvement in ourselves and how we recognize our feelings. We talked about the connections we both feel to water, how she truly feels herself when in it, and I, how a flood removed me from my place and then how I met my boyfriend in Lake Ontario. She was happy to help take silly photos, and, we got so wrapped up in the shoot that we lost track of time and her date, that she had planned to meet later, showed up to find a naked man in her tub. We had a bit of an awkward meeting, but he soon warmed up, we had a great conversation, and he helped to take photos! I love that I was a part of a date in this project and opened up someone that was uncomfortable to the idea of a naked guy's project of fun. It was nice getting to know Radha better and to relate on deeper levels and to affect a total stranger's perceptions. Here's the Dandyhorse article for which I was interviewed. http://dandyhorsemagazine.com/blog/2017/01/23/bathtub-internet-sensation-takes-a-bath-with-his-bike/ #bathtubsofbunz #bunz #bunz4ever #letyourfreakflagfly #letyourhairdown #weirdo #lovetoronto #toronto #baths #clean #relax #newyear #newyearnewme #2017 #jan18th @dandyhorsemagazine
The beer bath:
January 28th, 2017 Massage therapist, Sophi, contacted me with an intriguing offer. Her husband worked for Collingwood Brewery and said that they could do a whole tub with beer. I had never bathed in beer, but I had definitely been quite drunk on it before, and heard that monks had done so historically, so, I was all for it. It was ironic that the month I chose to be sober, I also had the most people offer to get me drunk. This day was also one of the moments that made me cry. The trust that complete strangers were continuing to give me was overwhelming, as during this visit, Sophi’s husband was out and I got to play and have lunch with just her little girl and herself in the special calm, quiet, and security that only a family home with little kids can have. We talked about the difference of nudity in Japan in public bathing cultures and Canada. The conversation spun to the drudgery of the working world and how her husband left the corporate, passionless sphere of accounting to become a beer sommelier. Sophi and her husband were both backpackers, having met in Thailand by chance and bonded over the tragedy of suicides in their families. Their friendship quickly turned into a long distance romance between Canada and Ireland and we talked about the amazing power of love and how easily it can happen when you don’t expect it. We talked about backpacking adventures and our wanderlust, the insights that massage therapists have on people’s fears, and stressors, and of their personalities, and the type of people that the career of massage attracts. We talked about our largely suburban, wasteful society and how she started to make more things at home and buy less, about the Minimalists and their podcast, and also the difficulty in transitioning into being a mother and how stressful the first few months of life are with a baby. The overriding theme was to not live in fear. It reminded me to not to live in fear of the job you hate, not to hold in your emotions for fear of judgment and to not fear giving your love to someone if it feels right, even if an ocean separate, like she and I had done in our pasts. #bathtubsofbunz #weirdo #bunz #bunz4ever #letyourfreakflagfly
The ball-pit bath:
January 23rd, 2017 BUNZ member Bella M. Eurta invited me to have one of the weirdest baths I've had yet. Not having a bath herself, she invited me to her friend's place. My first time meeting Rick Levine was very naked, but seeing the people he invited to his place that were already there, I realized quickly that this would not be shocking for him at all. I didn't quite understand before I showed up what I had agreed to. Bella is part of circus rock group, Mineta, and at first I thought they were performing for me while I'd be in a water and ball filled tub. I soon found out that I would just be naked in a bathtub full of dry balls and that they were FILMING A MUSIC VIDEO in which I would be a part. When I realized what I had signed up for I was all for it! Think clown nightmare. We really didn't talk about too much other than their creative ideas for the shoot and what we were filming next and what we had to do and whether or not my junk was exposed. We all need a bit of happy chaos, craziness, and insanity, in life. I think this is why this project appeals to so many. What occurred to me is that, after being the one getting naked and shocking people for almost a month, I had the reverse happen to me. Surprises are great and I've had quite a few happen to me during January, and I'm thankful for all of them. #bathhtubsofbunz #bunz #bunz4ever #weirdo #letyourfreakflagfly #letyourhairdown #baths #clean #relax #newyear #newyearnewme #jan23rd #2017 #toronto #lovetoronto #circus #mineta
The bird bath:
January 13th, 2017 I ventured to the house of recently graduated art students Lena and Max. I cooked them breakfast in exchange for the bath. They decorated the washroom to be cottage country living and brought me a taxidermy goose, put a discarded Christmas tree in there and played some soothing nature sounds on Lena's laptop. They informed me that they had two bathtubs and the ideas for the video and the pictures resulted. We are soooo artsy. We talked about break ups, the two of them both having recently gone through them, and how much they sick, but also the positive benefits of having more free time for creative outlets and rediscovering oneself. Lena is in a Celtic drumming group and practises various circus arts. Max talked about his French-Mexican heritage and opened up about his father's death and how they share the same laugh and how it was unfortunate that he never got to live with his dad after his dad came out of the closet and seen him with his new partner. We also learned the weird things we can do with our tongues. It was an engrossing conversation and one which brought me closer to two people I had only ever met at a party. They also later hopped into the tub like a tiny, skinny dipping hot tub. Artists, eh? #bathtubsofbunz #bunz #bunz4ever #weirdo #toronto #lovetoronto #newyearnewme #newyear #jan13th #art #clean #baths #relax #letyourfreakflagfly #letyouthairdown