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Those inside Bethesda’s Fraser Gallery for the “Interface” opening on Friday night find themselves in uncomfortable proximity to a giant, shifting metal contraption that drowns out conversation with its engine drone. Half meat-packing machine and half go-cart disaster, the steel monster propels two straitjacketed humans, one hanging from a hook and the other strapped onto a rolling buggy.
A man steps out of the circle that has formed around the strange thing. He takes a contemplative sip of his complimentary sangria and asks, “Is this performance art?”
A lithe, black-clad fellow flits about the apparatus with a stopwatch in his hand. He’s David Page, the 43-year-old Corcoran College of Art & Design teacher who designed the machine, titled Hopscotch. Page spent five days programming it to send its human cargo on a crash course. At the last moment, it will lift the suspended person over the buggy-riding person. Then it will repeat the process in reverse and switch itself off.
“Just to clear up everything, there’s no larger symbolic meaning to this,” says Page. He built Hopscotch just because it was cool. Other cool things Page has built include a man trapped in a big bottle, a chair that locks a sitter in place for four hours, and Utilitarian Perversity, a stretcherlike trailer meant to restrain and transport a person over the highways.
Page says he’s had problems in the past with his “subjects” freaking out. He once stopped Hopscotch to calm a panicky woman who thought she’d run out of air. “Most people really rather enjoy it,” Page says. “But I’m not, you know, interested in their experience. They’re part of the art.”
Page could speed up the machine’s three motors, but he’s chosen the dramatic route: Hopscotch takes a half-hour to complete its task. The two trapped bodies inch closer; despite the implied eroticism of the leather and corseted restraints, the sight is as arousing as boxcars changing tracks. The woman tied on the hook began the performance with a blissful smile. Now, through the clear plastic faceplate of her cocoon, she bears a look of concentration, as if trying to hold in a fart. Beneath Hopscotch, an insect scurries across the floor. “That’s real motion,” observes Page, one eye on his timer.
The Baltimore-based artist has a special commitment to perfection tonight. One of his volunteers called in sick after taking a test run and then bleeding from her ear—an aggravation of an old head injury, she says. So Page’s wife, Lauren Schott, got the part. “She pretty much knew that she was going to have to do it,” says Page. “Normally, you’d run a mile.”
Now Schott is plopped atop the buggy, staring at the incoming tootsies of accomplice Kate Guntermann, a fire-eater from Baltimore. A vacuum tube stuck into the butt of Schott’s body bag puffs up the costume, putting every detail of its craftsmanship on display. Page stitched the getup himself. He’s a bit of a hobbyist with fetish gear—he designed the cranial mask Gary Oldman wore in Hannibal.
Guntermann begins making a queer angle of approach toward Schott. The hoist isn’t lifting high enough. Only inches away from a collision, it doesn’t look as if Guntermann is going to have clearance.
Slowly, the flying Guntermann’s feet bump against Schott’s face mask. They flutter there for a while and come to rest on Schott’s shoulders. Schott’s breathing fogs up the inside of her plastic shield.
Page taps a friend in the audience to lift Guntermann’s feet over his wife’s head. “So you need an assistant with this,” remarks an observer. “Huh.”
The feet are finally cleared, and the buggy reaches the end of the track. Page reverses the motor, setting up the return trip. Fifteen minutes later, he shrugs modestly and the crowd applauds. “It felt like a Kafka’s world,” says painter Chawky Frenn. At that cryptic comment, the crowd applauds again.
Page lifts Guntermann off her hook and begins the laborious process of releasing her. “I didn’t realize how low the ceiling was,” he says. “The hoist really needs a little more space…to allow for certain time cushions.” Guntermann has other things on her mind. “Hot…no oxygen,” she says. Page then helps his beloved out of her bondage so she can work feeling back into her extremities. People gather around to ask what the experience was like. “I want your freedom?” offers Schott. —John Metcalfe
“Interface” is on view to Wednesday, Feb. 8, at Fraser Gallery Bethesda, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda. For more information, call (301) 718-9651.