Portrait | Eli Klein
I found Bunz Trading Zone in fall of 2015 when a friend connected me to the Facebook group after suggesting I look there for a film camera. I poked around a bit, tried posting once and trading later on, but it wasn’t initially clear the scale of the community I had just entered into. Bunz is a trading community that exists first as a Facebook group and second as a phone app with one primary rule: no cash. The 44,000 Bunz members exchanges services, advice, objects and medicine (the green kind or otherwise) in self-organized trades through the group and the app. But, more than that, they have developed a lively, opinionated and autonomous community that shares perspectives, opinions and critique (to put it lightly) continuously through posts and comments. In addition to this they also have a Bunz HQ, a silent investor and a dev team that is building the infrastructure for the future of international Bunz community
Eli Klein is the Brand Development and Community Manager for Bunz Trading Zone. He took the job about 4 months ago at the beginning of the year after being an Admin on the Facebook group throughout the winter. Admins moderate the posts, explain the language and rules to newcomers and just making sure nothing gets too crazy. In addition to the main hub, Bunz Trading Zone, there are 100 other Bunz groups that are primarily social in nature, including Bunz Breakup Zone, Bunz Feminist Zone and, a personal favourite of Eli's, Bunz Super Happy Love Zone. Eli is one of 11 people working at the Bunz HQ in downtown Toronto which is responsible for fostering and moderating the development of the community and building the app which launched earlier in the year.
“I think I had carved out a pretty comfortable place for myself in capitalism.”
Before Bunz, Eli worked in the music industry, primarily with live music. In his hometown of Edmonton he worked fairly independently hosting his own radio shows and being a promoter. But shortly after he moved to Toronto with his now wife, Leah, in 2006 after being let go from the job he moved to the city for Eli transitioned into the other side of the music industry by taking a role with The Agency Group. Being an agent is, as he explained, “the literal opposite of being a promoter, because as a promoter you’re a buyer and as an agent you’re a seller.” Though he worked hard to be promoted in the company to achieve the role of an agent, as soon as he got it he felt the role to be very unsettling. “I think I had carved out a pretty comfortable place for myself in capitalism. I went to school for political science and I come from punk roots and so I was very uncomfortable with capitalism as a form of human organization. But I had made a place for myself where I was comfortable participating with it on my terms. But then being an agent there is a bottom line and you’re answering to a company and it’s still artist development but you have a number to hit. You’re selling art for a price and that price doesn’t go down it only goes up and people have to pay it or they don’t get the show, that’s the bottom line.” He continued working as an agent, booking indie electronic artists like Austra, Hooded Fang and Tribe Called Red, but never really felt at ease. “I had always been an independent person, I had always worked entrepreneurially in Edmonton, by my own sort of efforts. Having a boss and working for someone else, it all fed into this idea that I wasn’t really built to be a ‘worker’ in a capitalist sense.”
"I wasn’t really built to be a ‘worker’ in a capitalist sense.”
He ultimately left The Agency Group with their blessing to go become Head of Music at the Harbourfront Centre, meaning he was back to being a buyer of musical acts instead of a seller. The role, previous filled by heavyweights in Toronto’s music scene Alok Sharma and Dalton Higgins, proved to be another challenging fit for Eli after clashing with the head of his department. "It had to do with, again, having a boss and having someone telling me how to do my job.” He still appreciates and respects the company, but also recognizes that structure just didn’t work for him. “I love everyone that still works there. But that’s the bureaucracy of a place like that.” He left after booking the summer season and was scooped up by Adelaide Hall, where he stayed for just under a year. At this point of his life, Eli was already married and his wife, who had just had their second son and also works as a midwife (“So our lives are crazy with her schedule and clubland life”), and they realized something had to give. So Eli left Adelaide Hall and took a parental leave to take care of their sons while he continued working freelance gigs, one of which was as an Artist Manger at Flemish Eye Records. When we reached this part of the conversation Eli paused, contemplating how to continue.
To give you some backstory, Flemish Eye Records manages the band Viet Cong (now known at Preoccupations). The band went under fire last year for their racist name and the following resistance to change it. Viet Cong, to explain succinctly, was a shortened name given to a network of communist soldiers controlled by North Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam war from 1965-76. This group of as many as 3000 men carried out extreme acts of violence and terrorism in South Vietnam during this time. The band supposedly chose the name because of ‘bad-ass’ depiction of Viet Cong by American cinema, which is a hugely problematic and misinformed glorification in and of itself of a group of individuals that cause severe harm to so many. There have been many eloquent and informed letters and articles written about this misappropriation that you can easily find online if you would like to understand further.
“I had pulled out of the music business for a reason and here I was back in the mix of it and back in the worst part of it"
After protests, email chains with publicists and months of discussion on September 19th 2015 the band released a letter that announced that they were going to change their band name. After Eli was pushing for a name change since the beginning it wasn’t until April 19th 2016 that the new name, Preoccupations, was announced - but he was already gone.* "The fact that Cong sat on the name opportunity for 8 months, really pissed a lot of people off. And I pulled out of working with them in November ... I had pulled out of the music business for a reason and here I was back in the mix of it and back in the worst part of it, the part where people fit and spit and claw at each other. It was a weird marriage of my pasts in politics and music and I felt ashamed to be where I was in the mix of that because I feel like I am an ally. I still think that I fought the good fight from within and ultimately they took their own time on their own schedule and that’s what happened.” Coming out of that in the fall is when Eli re-connected with Dave Morton from Bunz, which, is what was led to here.
Though not free of political debate, Bunz offers Eli a safer space to learn and grow while still reminiscent of his early days building up the disparate punk scene in Edmonton. “Bunz as an entity offers me in my life so much holistic-ness in terms of everything that I’ve come from.” Eli firmly believes in the power of the community, he has even associated theories learnt in his Political Science degree at University of Alberta, as a way of connecting his anti-capitalist yearnings. He goes on to explain the theory of Anarchosyndicalism by Dutch philosopher Bart De Ligt which, essentially, described a society and economic system based on the exchange of services. “A way that people could organize business without cash would not necessarily be to barter, but to exchange services and really it would be about need. It wouldn’t be about a hierarchy of needs but a creating a structure to organize needs to make sure everyone gets what they want. And nothing I’ve done in my life has reminded me more of that theory and that thinking than Bunz.”
“There’s this idea that we’ve forgotten what human connection can look like and Bunz just slaps you in the face with it over and over again.”
Beyond just the exchange of goods and services, Eli finds value in the exchange of knowledge that happens continuously in the comment streams below posts. “I also think people learn a lot more watching the arguments unfold like that than they ever do reading Wikipedia.’ Perhaps it’s a car-crash type of attraction, or maybe just our voyeuristic reality-show culture, but the explosive debates are valuable nonetheless. “People can link a thousand times to everydayfeminism.com slash dreadlocks or slash anything that they explain so fucking well, but they’d rather sit there and watch people hash it out and make passionate arguments.” There is a sometimes baffling realness to Bunz, (primarily rooted in the fact that it is rooted in a face-to-face interaction) partially attributed to the raw and (largely) uncensored conversation and community that comes out of it. “There’s this idea that we’ve forgotten what human connection can look like and Bunz just slaps you in the face with it over and over again.” After all, their slogan is “Get Off The Internet”.
**Correction: Preoccupations/Viet Cong is still under the Flemish Eye label but no longer managed by Flemish Eye
Eli Klein is one of three panelists in our upcoming discussion, Making Space. Exploring the ways in which we can use the internet to better society. Come check it out Sunday, May 22nd at Markham House in Toronto. RSVP here