Artists are fundamentally problem solvers. They are generally understood to be solving problems of a personal-expressive nature, or perhaps ones related to community, and occasionally political or environmental problems. They are not often considered the front line for solving, say, problems of city infrastructure. But maybe they should be.
If you’d asked Oren Goldenberg what he does ten years ago, he might have said “filmmaker” or “producer,” or he might have narrowed his eyes and asked: Who wants to know? These days, however, the answer is a little more complicated. At some point in the last decade, Goldenberg stopped making films as a document, and stepped through the frame to build the world-as-document. It isn’t the first time he’s been tempted to do so. Our School (2005-2009) is a feature-length documentary that seeks to reveal the experience of going to high school for one day, from dawn to nightfall, in his home city of Detroit.
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“When I was doing Our School, I’m like, should I just go be a teacher? What’s going to really help with the education crisis? It’s gonna be a teacher, right?” said Goldenberg during a walking interview with Hyperallergic across the site of his latest undertaking. Ten years ago, the grounds we are walking on would have been identified by in-the-know Detroiters as Recycle Here!, a community-grown waste management center piloted by Matthew Naimi in a city that had famously suspended trash pick-up for decades, to say nothing of recycling. A lot has changed in ten years, and for the last seven, Goldenberg has been right at the heart of it.
Nowadays, Recycle Here! is a recognized part of city infrastructure, but the facilities that surround it have undergone a startling transformation. In place of the crumbling outbuilding that once belonged to the former Lincoln automotive factory (still indicated by the adjoining Lincoln Street and its eponymous art park, also developed by Naimi and his associates), a new complex is emerging. Once a free space and favorite haunt of street artists, that has tragically claimed at least one life, the complex is on the home stretch of work that has stabilized the structure and secured facilities. The project is expected to launch this year with communal gathering spaces, a fresh venue for longtime neighbor Marble Bar, and 81 live-work units calibrated to hold the community that occupied the former structure.
“In doing this project, I’ve learned that our presumptions around development and construction are just wrong,” said Goldenberg. “When you think of high-end developments, they create a projection of who can we attract, as opposed to who is here, because they need something that could pay the cost to renovate a historic building.”
“Nobody wants to be exclusive, or at a price point where it’s empty, but you have to create different models of verification,” Goldenberg continued. “When we first started getting money here, people asked: Why is your commercial rent so low? I replied: Well, it’s for Recycle Here! They’re already here, this is all they can pay.”
This isn’t the first time Goldenberg has taken an interest in housing. Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother (shot 2010-11, released 2012) is a documentary about the first public housing for low-income Americans, erected in Detroit. A later work moves from documentary to magical realism: In Retrospect: A Requiem for Douglass (2015) is a compilation of seven commissioned rituals created and performed before, during, and after the demolition of Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project in the early 1990s.
In another past project, Goldenberg once more explored community-building in a historic space. Though he created the video, “Make it History: the Downtown Synagogue,” Goldenberg’s more notable legacy with the organization is arguably the series of after-dark House music dance parties, which sought to bring in new energy and a wave of younger constituents to the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, built in 1921 and currently the last remaining free-standing synagogue in Detroit.
Goldenberg followed the inspiration of parties as rally points to the free community surrounding the Lincoln Street Art Park, where the “Freak Beacon” serves as a statue of liberty, summoning the increasingly marginal part of Detroit that remains ungovernable. These people are the basis of ‘characters’ for Goldenberg’s current film, more than five years in the making and currently untitled, which seeks to grasp the ungraspable answer to the question: What is Detroit?
“I think a lot of directors consider films holy, and worth more than the humans who make them,” said Goldenberg. “I push very hard against that. I just don’t think it’s true. No one should die making your movie, no one should be exhausted and feel shitty for your movie. It’s an illusion. But this is different. People are going to live here.”
In Detroit, the shattering of infrastructure, regulation, and ownership opened a window, one that is now rapidly closing as entrepreneurial forces have seized upon the city as a development opportunity. But for a minute, and maybe even a minute longer, there are so many problems that artists have been able to get their hands on and start to solve in the way that artists do: A way that places a completely different valuation on what community means, what a recycling center means, what a building means. Filmmakers and producers already know how to imagine a world into being, through the sheer power of belief. Goldenberg is showing what happens when that belief becomes a home that others can occupy.