Art review: Michael Dax Iacovone and Billy Friebele's 'Free Space'

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fourth in a series of daily articles looking at a single image from FotoWeek DC, Washington's third annual celebration of photography.

One of the best projects in FotoWeek DC is entirely made of photographs -- but barely ought to count as photography. What it looks like scarcely matters and will change daily anyway.

The heart of "Free Space," by local artists Michael Dax Iacovone and Billy Friebele, is purely conceptual. Its virtues are social rather than aesthetic.

Iacovone and Friebele began by gridding Washington into one-mile squares, then turning that grid into a blank urban "map" on a huge board, studded with nails at the apex of each square. They've installed their map in the lobby of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown, as an off-site exhibition of Flashpoint Gallery, which sits across the street. Washington residents and visitors are invited to upload their own pictures of the city at, with information on where they were shot. The artists print out the digital photos they're sent, then hang them from the place-appropriate nails on the board, slowly building up a comprehensive "picture" of the spaces we all share in the city.

The artists hang pictures as they are received, one on top of another. You can judge the popularity of a square -- and of the real streets and parks it represents -- by how thickly it gets layered with images. The "Free Space" chart becomes a relief map of social geography.

I'm not sure that this project is much about the photographic art involved. The artists don't vet the images they hang. There are shots of everything (from a night view of the giant Marilyn billboard on Connecticut Avenue NW to neoclassical sculpture, to shots of open sky above or of the ground beneath the shooter's feet).

Since most photographs are rectangles, the artists have to crop them heavily to fit them to the squares of their grid. So much for any artfully considered composition. (The uncropped shots are displayed on the Web site.)

The true art, in this project, involves the artists relinquishing control to their audience. It's about letting the facts about a place sediment out. And it's about making clear that sometimes, images matter less, for their own sakes, than for the sake of the people who took them, and of the places where they were taken.

Free Space: A Communal and Interactive Survey

of Washington, D.C. Through Dec. 4 at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW. Call 202-315-1305 or visit

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