Born Detroit, 1983 / BA (Film & Video), University of Michigan / Lives in Detroit
Between 2013 and 2014, the four high rise towers that were the last remnants of Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing projects, the country’s first federally-funded public housing for African-Americans, were demolished. While the towers had been officially cleared of residents in 2008, they were, in fact, still home to a handful of people up to the time of their demolition, as Oren Goldenberg’s 2012 cinéma vérité short Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother reveals. The video opens with a two-minute montage depicting the derelict complex from a series of neighboring perspectives—evoking its omnipresence, both physical and psychic, in the Detroit landscape—set to the sound of a gospel crooner’s insistent refrain that, “Time don’t wait for no one.” Then the focus shifts to Darlene, a long-term resident who says, as she reflects candidly on her hard life, that she survives by scrapping, and that she hasn’t seen her large family in years. At the end of the video, with the towers’ demolition imminent, Darlene is seen leaving, her empty hands in her pockets. She’s crossing the I-375 overpass, going—where? She doesn’t say. Does she know?
Goldenberg’s empathetic portrait of Darlene is typical of the video and installation artist’s concern for what happens to people when the spaces around them change, and for what happens to Detroiters, in particular, when their public institutions collapse. Goldenberg, who grew up in Huntington Woods, is part of a generation of activists who moved to Detroit in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s to promote social justice and to find, as he puts it, “healing and transcendence and the radicalization of our minds.” He describes his Bush II-era realization that, “the disparity in Detroit was linked with the privilege I grew up with in the suburbs,” an awakening that led to his first short film out of college, a 2005 documentary about the Detroit Public Schools crisis (and a precursor to 2009’s Our School, his intimate, feature-length meditation on the same subject). While there is ample room in Goldenberg’s broad, ambitious, and technically accomplished practice for projects that do not deal explicitly with the effects of injustice—see, for instance, Genesis and Se Reveiller, a pair of soulful short romances he made in 2010 and ’11, or Who Are You? (2014), an absorbing, interactive exploration of teen identity formation—his work nevertheless remains fundamentally humanist, as deeply rooted in ethics as poetics.
One of his key concerns is the power of ritual as a form of catharsis. Goldenberg had a conservative Jewish upbringing, and after seeing friends and family use ritual to transcend hard times, he began to explore its application in Detroit, where life is “inextricably connected to loss,” but where that loss is insufficiently grieved. First were the Rituals for Spatial Transformation (2012-14), conceived to memorialize the Brewster-Douglass projects. These included on-site dance, music, poetry, and a lantern lighting and libation ceremony, as well as enthusiastically-attended public conversations, screenings, and a live video performance. The series culminated in A Requiem for Douglass (2015), an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in which footage of the on-site rituals was triggered by a final ritualistic gesture, enacted by the spectator: the removal of a brick from a pile arranged in the distinctive cross shape of the Douglass towers (and sourced from the site itself).
In 2016, in partnership with William Danaher, rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, Goldenberg organized Art as Ritual, a conference for artists, academics, and interfaith community members to explore the power of ritual and lamentation to bring people closer together. This gesture points to the instinctive generosity and inclusiveness of Goldenberg’s practice, which typically finds him collaborating with and elevating others’ work in the realization of his own creative vision.
Recently, inspired in part by a desire to rekindle the “magic” of video in our oversaturated age, Goldenberg has begun working with local performers to create vivid, non-narrative performance videos, like Time I Change (2012), in which dancer/choreographer Haleem “Stringz” Rasul is tracked through a fragmented cityscape while seemingly fighting for control of his beleaguered body, and Untitled Experiment in the Modern Gaze (2016), an immersive installation in which dance artist Biba Bell recognizes, rejects, flirts with, and penultimately performs for the camera before decisively (and spectacularly) obliterating the frame around her. Goldenberg used virtual reality technology to make Untitled Experiment…, and even then, he was thinking about place, connectedness, and the ideal of the public. In discussing the future of his chosen medium, he wonders aloud: “Virtual reality is here. How are we going to start experiencing it? Isolated, with goggles on? Or in spaces, together?”
Matthew Piper, April 2017
Copyright Essay’d 2017