Art, from graffiti to public sculpture, lies on countless city streets; its subjective beauty can come to define neighborhoods or endlessly evince messages of social change. But often, it is the inaccessibility of art that proves attractive to viewers. The skill of an artist is impressive because their instruments accomplish very little when placed in another’s hands. Urban communities, particularly Washington D.C., have tried  to change this by providing public programs, allowing individuals to learn and create art for themselves. Billy Friebele and Mike Iacovone call attention to the power of accessible art through their collaborative exhibit, City of Ghosts, located at the Flashpoint Gallery through September 10th.

Friebele and Iacovone are co-founders of the Freespace Collective. Their goal is to emphasize art in community engagement and public spaces. All of the artwork seen in their exhibit was created using machines from the “Fab Lab” at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, located directly across the street from the gallery. The Lab provides tools, including 3D printers and soldering equipment, for free to the public to create their own works of art. Using the tools of the people, the artists begin an examination of the change and continuity of their city.

The narrow, barebones gallery with plain, white walls and unfinished stone floors is dark, and one cannot quite make out any individual work without standing directly in front of it. After opening the doors, the viewer is greeted by a partitioning wall with a small, charcoal gray head sitting atop a small wooden box. Next to it are the instructions, “1. Press Button 2. Release button after desired length 3. Tear the paper and take the text.”  Looking more closely, the head is a 3D printed copy of Martin Luther King Jr. The face’s features are dull, muted. What is lost in the dark gray gives an interesting ambiguity to the piece. This face really could be anyone. After following the instructions on the wall, a small piece of receipt paper slides out of the base the head rests upon and each guest then receives randomized quotes from his speeches.

The two artists seem to emphasize the crudeness of their medium at times, constructing their pieces with an intentional lack of refinement. Perhaps this is to take the perspective of the inexperienced artist capable of using the very same machines Friebele and Iacovone used in their year-long residency with the DC Public Library. A hologram of Martin Luther King Jr., created using a flat-screen television laid flat with a pyramid of plexiglass, sits on a shoddy table made of crooked 2x4s (MLK Hologram), and projections of DC homicide statistics are made with a series of flexible lamps clipped onto boxes (Homicide Project 2013-2015). At times, however, the simplicity of their work appears more like plain poor craftsmanship than inspiration to budding artists at times. This is quite apparent with the works that utilize 3D printing as wisps of plastic protrude over nearly every fine cut, preventing much appreciation of detail.

The two are focused on their messages more than the physical artistry of their exhibit, presenting designs that are innovative in concept, but less impactful than desired in execution. MLK Jr. is undoubtedly a running theme in the exhibit, an homage to the library in which they worked as well as to his legacy as a tremendous civil rights activist. Such a storied figure included with such simple works feels hackneyed after the initial introduction at the door, included in name only to supplement their commentary on the gentrification and poverty maps projected on the back and right walls of the gallery.

Although they do not necessarily excel at general social commentary, the artists thrive when tapping into the nostalgia of a city that has seen massive infrastructural overhaul in recent decades. Or, as they put it, “[The] Tensions of rapid change and collective amnesia.” They approach this subject with a cold haziness. The projectors showing homicide stats from years past are less in focus. And their cynicism for their gentrifying city is embodied in Future Monument for Chinatown, DC 2016. Hip and gable roofs and ornate archways are stacked in between traffic cones. Winds of Time (over 100 years) shows a slideshow of morose scenes in the city. A weathered man in Chinatown stands, staring off in the direction of the camera. Behind him a sign reads “Alas this is the so called human rights…” to be cut off by his torso. Pencils strike the slideshow screen at random points with a loud pulley dragging them to different locations on the canvas. Only between pictures can one see that it is creating an abstract drawing that can only be described as specks of dust in the wind.

Future Monument for Chinatown, Tony Hitchcock Photography

Future Monument for Chinatown, Tony Hitchcock Photography

Their approach is dark and critical, highlighting a dizzying confusion in the city through their strange and eclectic works. Originality falls by the wayside at times, but their messages still ring true. Their exhibit is dark and clawing for the past as they show the District of Columbia’s poverty and death rates, demonstrating how gentrification keeps the city divided. The only hope is in community, and heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. The most tangible hope they can leave you with are his words. My quote, taken off the receipt paper, reads as follows:

“Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you are dependent on more than half of the world. So let us be concerned about others, because we are dependent on others. Now if life is to be complete, we must move beyond our self interest. I do not know what the future holds, but I do know who holds the future.”

Although Friebele and Iacovone use their art to highlight their city’s suffering, a grim present does not condemn the future. Art will withstand the test of time, and change may eventually come with it.