Bombay Beach Biennale shakes up town at toxic Salton Sea

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An offbeat art festival called the Bombay Beach Biennale has come to the Salton Sea. How do the locals feel about the influx of art and opera?

Jesca Hoop performing at the Bombay Beach Opera House. All photos by Jennifer Swann. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Bombay Beach, California was a celebrity-studded resort town known as “Palm Springs by the sea.” But you wouldn’t know that by walking through the town — or at least what’s left of it — today. Some of its homes, mostly trailers and pre-fab mid-century bungalows, have been abandoned. A lot of them were foreclosed on. Others were owned by people who passed away and left them to rot.

The house I’m standing in still has carpet on the floors and stacks of mail addressed to a former resident. Graffiti covers the walls. A foul smell lingers in the air. But the reason I’m in Bombay Beach, a tiny town on the shores of the Salton Sea, about halfway between Palm Springs and the Mexico border, isn’t to explore abandoned buildings, like a lot of people come here to do. Instead, I’m here for the Bombay Beach Biennale.

Now in its third year, the biennale features a maze of art and immersive installations that mostly respond to the desert and the Salton Sea. It’s also riddled with oxymorons. There are the wealthy artists, fashion models, and designers who fly in from all over the world to spend time in a town so rural that the nearest grocery store is about a 40-minute drive away. There are the opera singers and dancers from the San Francisco Ballet who come to perform at the Bombay Beach Opera House, and the all-night parties that rage in dilapidated homes. Then there’s the fact that it happens every year as opposed to every other year, like its name would suggest. The event’s organizers say its paradoxes are designed to accentuate the strangeness of the place.

“We’re breathing life into a town that was and still is literally dying,” says Stefan Ashkenazy, one of the biennale’s co-founders. “The vast majority of people I speak with are really excited that young people are coming here and putting in love and attention and some investment into a town that would otherwise not have it and not gain it.”

The Bombay Beach Estates, one of the biennale’s newest venues. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Ashkenazy, who owns the West Hollywood hotel Petit Ermitage, first heard about Bombay Beach in 2015. He’d been organizing a tented camp at Burning Man and was looking for a remote location to reinstall the project. He’d considered Joshua Tree and Coachella Valley, both of which have become hip travel destinations for the bohemian LA crowd. Bombay Beach is certainly not that.

In fact, much to the dismay of the locals, it has served as the setting for countless post-apocalyptic movies and photo shoots, including a “zombie apocalypse horror movie” that Ashkenazy says his friend directed in the 1990s.

Another friend of Ashkenazy’s, the documentary filmmaker and photographer Tao Ruspoli, had also recently bought property in Bombay Beach and convinced him that “It’s the coolest place, we all have to go,” Ashkenazy remembers. Together with their friend Lily Johnson, a designer and heiress to Johnson & Johnson, they founded the biennale in 2016.

Acrobats posing near the shore of the Salton Sea. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Ashkenazy bought several properties in the heart of town, including a dilapidated house that he enlisted the New York artist Greg Haberny to make art out of. Given Haberny’s propensity for lighting his work on fire and then making new work out of the ashes, Ashkenazy assumed he might fly a helicopter into the house or destroy it in some other way.

But Haberny had something else in mind. “As opposed to blowing this place out and turning it into this crazy over the top installation of carnage, why don’t we do the opposite and build it up, you know, and beautify this place?” Haberny remembers thinking. “We came in, we did a massive paint job on everything, tore the ceilings out… but it’s a work in progress. Now you can see that year three, we’ve built it into a serious show space.”

The trend of buying property in Bombay Beach is catching on. Fashion photographer Joe Regan says he purchased a small trailer for about $4,500 via a tax sale online about six months ago, a direct result of visiting the biennale last year. At the time, he says, it was filled to the roof with garbage. He paid some neighbor kids to clean it out. It’s still not totally inhabitable. He’s strung the place with twinkling Christmas lights and likes to refer to it as a bomb shelter. Rather than an AirBNB, he calls it a Scare BnB.

“If I felt like having a trailer that’s also a fallout shelter, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s really the reason I got the place, I can do whatever I want,” says Regan. “Be as artistic as you want, or don’t do anything. I’ve got a boat out here that’s powered by a disco ball. The harder you disco, the faster the boat goes.”

The Bombay Beach Drive-In. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Michelle Gold, a local realtor with Desert Gold Properties, said she received four different calls from people looking to buy property in Bombay Beach in the two weeks following the biennale. She says property values are going up. One property she has listed, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Bombay Beach, is asking $89,000. The last time it sold, in 2002, was for $3,025, according to Zillow.

But one big thing preventing people from moving here is the Salton Sea. Although it is beautiful to look at, it is not exactly healthy to live near. When the wind kicks up, hydrogen sulfide, dust, and pollution from the sea permeate the air. Still, plenty of people — roughly 300 — choose to live here. A lot of them are amused by the biennale, but not all of them are excited by it.

“Save Me,” a piece on the Salton Sea by the artist Olivia Steele. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“They come in, they trash the place. They say they’re going to pick it up afterwards they do not,” says Louise Jones, who I meet at American Legion Post 801, one of the town’s two bars. “We have enough freaks in this town. We do not need anymore.” To be fair, Jones isn’t just angry about the biennale. She, like a lot of locals, is fed up with how Bombay Beach gets stereotyped as an abandoned, post-apocalyptic town filled with “lowlifes,” when in reality, she says, “some people actually do work for a living.”

Artists have been coming out to Bombay Beach for as long as there’s been abandoned property. The photographer and filmmaker Ian Ruhter had been visiting the neighborhood for years before starting a documentary about the community. The documentary, called Obscura, which is still a work in progress, is about how he turned an abandoned house here into a camera obscura, and took tin-type portraits of the residents to document their lives. “Bombay Beach in general is view[ed as] a spectacle where people come through and look at it like a tourist attraction,” he told me in an email. “The camera obscura house was designed not to focus on the misfortune of others but to honor the people of the community.”

“Trust the Process,” a neon installation by Olivia Steele. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A group of locals has also been working to set up their own community art center, independent of the biennale. Jack Parker, who is helping to run the place, says he was destitute and felt called to Bombay Beach to make art. “It’s a place where sometimes you gotta go to connect with what’s important,” he says. “You’ve got to quiet the noise out, and that’s what this place did.”

The biennale doesn’t exactly quiet the noise — at least for the weekend it takes place — but Ashkenazy says he hopes the properties he turned into art spaces can become more sustainable as year-round attractions for the community. He says he’s not worried about gentrification, considering how many properties are still in ruins.

“I certainly don’t think there’s going to be a run on property in Bombay Beach. Something has to be a little bit off with you to want to do this,” says Ashkenazy. “The whole reason we’re out here is to stay wild and free and weird. There’s no commercial plan for what were doing. And we need to keep it that way.”