At the Bombay Beach Biennale, Art Asks Questions of a Living Ghost Town

The renegade literary festival in the famed Salton Sea desert town makes a dazzling debut, drawing collaboration from locals and visitors

Bombay Beach local Ray Evans remembers the land’s legends well: Frank Sinatra vacationed here once, after all. So did The Beach Boys. Bing Crosby. Sonny Bono. In the 50s, Bombay Beach wasn’t just another popular beach town. It was the “it” beach town: A patchwork of muscle cars and gingham beach blankets, palm thatch cabanas and the sun-glassed elite that lounge beneath them.

“I learned to water ski on that lake,” says Evans, flicking a thumb towards the Salton Sea like he’s trying to hitchhike into the past. Still. “If you would have come here 10 years ago,” Evans says, “you would have sworn the earth would take this place back.” 

We’re sitting in the Bombay Beach Art Barn on the first day of the 2023 Bombay Beach Biennale and the first full day of the first-ever Bombay Beach Lit Fest, helmed by writers Gina Frangello and her husband Rob Roberge. Both are no-tickets, all-free attempts to bring consideration to the rich seam of history still trenched in Bombay Beach, while recasting it as a mecca of arts and culture.

(Photo by Lauren Abunassar)

“My husband and I discovered Bombay Beach by accident,” says Frangello. “We were just basically driving around. I had never heard of the Salton Sea in my life back then—this is in 2005… But we parked somewhere, we got up, we walked around. We just said, ‘This looks like something out of Mad Max or something’. Of course, we later discovered we were far from unusual in terms of people who go to Bombay Beach all the time to take pictures.”

(Photo by Lauren Abunassar)

Enmeshed in the lettuce lore of the broader Imperial Valley and stitched into the salt-tinged fabric of the Sonoran Desert, papery and yellow like the skin of Spanish onion, Bombay Beach slouched into disrepair in the 70s when agricultural runoff, a dwindling water supply, and rising salinity levels left the sea largely unusable, an environmental hazard that killed off masses of birds, fish, local wildlife, and the tourism industry.

A mass exodus ensued and the community became a living ghost town, 223 feet below sea level—the lowest community in the U.S. Sea-side bungalows turned into low-slung shanties with knocked-out windows and graffitied walls. Today, there are approximately 231 locals left, and little infrastructure beyond the American Legion, a small restaurant once patronised by Anthony Bourdain, and a little market for basic necessities. The nearest hospital is 38 miles away. 

(Photo by Lauren Abunassar)

The town may have languished in limbo had it not been discovered by Bombay Beach Biennale founders Tao Ruspoli, Stefan Ashkenazy, and Lily Johnson White, who founded the Biennale in 2015 as a “renegade celebration of art, music, and philosophy that takes place on the edge of civilization.” Operating under a the-less-sense-it-makes-the-more-sense-it-makes, doxa, the biennale helped put Bombay Beach back on the map, framing out its reputation as a high-art world spoof, the Anti-Burning Man, and a bohemian playground on the shore of a toxic lake. 

“At first, the community didn’t really know what to make of it,” says Jane Maru, who has been coming to Bombay Beach from her home in Montana since 2000. “But it’s a kind of prototype for how to move forward in a truly collaborative way. No one’s interested in putting their name on something just for the sake of putting their name on something.” Ray Evans echoes the sentiment, earnestly confessing, “If it wasn’t for this group, this place would be gone.” 

The group in question now includes Frangello and Roberge, who had the idea to bring a writerly dimension to the already-rooted art scene in 2019. Frangello and Roberge reached out to biennale programmers and asked if it would be stepping on anybody’s toes to include some literary programming on the roster. All was a go. After all, in the words of the biennale’s defacto guide—a kind of quixotic manifesto— “We are a community that thrives on both self-reliance and consideration for others.”

(Photo by Lauren Abunassar)

Someone Has to Be the Steward

Though Frangello and Roberge were forced to cancel the lit fest’s first run at the onset of the pandemic, they were eager to kick things off in earnest this year, hosting the literary events in tandem with the biennale in a kind of Super-Sized cultural renaissance. Programming included fireside talks on punk rock, one-minute memoir workshops, panels on the art of writing sex, and somatic storytelling workshops on “embodying your story.” 

And though the novelty of Bombay Beach’s art-hub revival is not easy to ignore, the new literary component does wonders to underscore how it’s not kitsch, it’s more a kind of kismet intervention working to reclaim hope and probe at the question of just how much the arts can do to catalyze change. 

“Overview facilitates insight, while insight generates consideration,” says Denis Dimick in Friday’s discussion of his work photographing landscapes from above, providing visual evidence of how we transform land. The idea, framed as part of Dimick’s larger discussion regarding “things we always see but rarely notice,” is a fitting microcosm for the presence of art in Bombay Beach. The festival is a testament to just how much art facilitates care, diversion fuels survival, and the act of questioning signifies a deep and abiding dedication to both history and the future. 

Dimick’s presentation, as well as Brenda Ann Kenneally’s “None of us can get to heaven until all of us can get to heaven,” after him, inspire fierce discussion among the audience, covering everything from the local supply of lithium to what it means to be a community portrayed as a failure of the American Dream—when really it is the American Dream that has failed you. “Beauty is a class privilege. So is creativity,” Kenneally tells the audience. And it is here that a key message is telegraphed: If one has the blessing to access art, one has the responsibility to mobilize it for some greater cause. When it comes to change, someone has to be the steward.  

Artists with Fercely Guarded Ideals

This idea is part of what brought voiceover actor and writer David Thomas to the lit fest from L.A. We get lost wandering the tiny grid of side streets, looking for the Temple to the Scientific Method, an art-museum-meets-temple-meets-performance-space that a local named Dadaonyus created—and volunteered for use during the festival—out of three repurposed industrial shipping containers. “I can be loving with an evil message,” says Thomas, who has been thinking of all the years he spent lending his voice to big oil commercials, pharmaceutical ads, and the like. His early career was predicated, often, on being able to effectively narrate and sell ethically murky goods. It’s something to think about, especially, when surrounded by artists with fiercely guarded ideals.

Temple to the Scientific Method. (Photo by Lauren Abunassar)

Now, shifting his focus to writing a novel, Thomas is excited to see presentations given by writers like John Schimmel, who gave a talk on writing for video games in the homemade theater right next to the Temple. With experience helping writers put their narratives into audio tracks, Thomas is increasingly interested in the collaborative efforts of writers, artists, and teachers to instigate some broader change.

“I want to place the tricks of voice-over work into the hands of writers because I know I can trust them with it,” he says. He’s entirely genuine in this confession, and that faith in the utility of art is not rare in Bombay Beach. 

When we finally find the Temple, shoes caked in papery dust, we stick around for a reading from participating California literary journal, Kelp, a publication especially dedicated to oceanic and conservationist themes, as well as something Kelp Editor-in-Chief David M. Olsen calls “surf-noir.” 

As Kelp contributors take their turns reading from poems and stories about growing a perfect boyfriend from a packet of seeds, a woman who watches her partner shed his face during dinner, and a real-life Bombay Beach gang, there’s a scintillating crackle of unchecked creativity.

Lit Fest co-found Rob Roberge reads as part of the Kelp Literary Journal group reading. (Photo by Lauren Abunassar)

What It Means to Stick Around

The broader festival crowd is a group that can move seamlessly through discussion of nearby Border Patrol agents, the ceremonial killing of a palmetto bug at the festival’s first night gathering on the beach, the tedious shame of turning to a plastic water bottle. Underneath everything, however, is the enduring question: What does it mean to stick around, long after the art has been picked up and the tourists have gone home? 

For Gina Frangello, there’s a kind of ethical obligation to consider this question, and it certainly bore down on how she and the lit fest crew developed their own programming. In the past, she says, there has been tension between locals and seasonal visitors. After all, an audience can come and treat the community like a spectacle. But it is still a home. 

“We’re definitely not trying to cause an influx of future tourism,” says Frangello. This could feed into that toxic danger of poverty-tourism. What she does want, she says, is more of an embedded sensation of collaboration between locals and artists. “The American Legion where we’re having our headlining events had never really been involved in the biennale,” Frangello says. “So we got the idea that it would be nice to involve them and see if we could bridge that gap and make the locals even more included.” 

We’re 27 miles from Mecca—the California one at least—in a grid that feels less like a town and more like an interruption in the desert’s achingly massive sprawl. The water is like some great card trick—dazzling, engaging, but ultimately a lie. Yet among the periodic rise of nearby packed feedlots, skeletal-looking turbine plants, and the corporeal slope of the Chocolate Mountains, there’s some tender intimacy in Bombay Beach—megaphoned by this shared undertaking to not just look at art but to ask questions of what work it could do. 

No one that helped plan the literary festival in Bombay Beach actually lived in Bombay Beach. The closest volunteers were hours away in L.A. And yet, the town itself took up the slack enforced by distance, readying the land to become a stage. “I really believe that if you’re going to have a festival, or if you’re going to have any kind of event in town, you also want to give back to the town. One of the things I was involved with, with Tao Rispoli, was we wanted to create a library,” says Frangello. 

And so, she began shipping massive loads of books to the community, which were stored by Dadaonysus, even throughout the pandemic. Frangello expected she’d have to wait until she could make it into town before the library was assembled. But then another local, Stephanie Giuffre, otherwise known as Satya Devi, took it upon herself to help unpack and organize the books in the library she built in her garage. 

Satya Devi in her library, the Psycho Jim Research Center. (Photo by Lauren Abunassar)

“I think the thing that Rob and I were most struck by about the town, and found so magical about it,” says Frangello, “is just the way people helped each other. If one person is going to the grocery store, everybody gives them a list. Pitches in. And then someone will pick things up for everybody else.” 

More Alive Than People Know

Devi, the de-facto librarian in question, speaks about her efforts to turn this collaborative spirit toward the festival undertakings as if it’s all just a given. “My feeling is everyone should have a library,” she says. Simple. 

Before moving to Bombay Beach, Devi ran an arts collective in Pittsburgh whose anchoring project was to “promote and support expression of art while raising awareness of social issues.” She came to the desert after she burned out, selling all of her belongings and looking to buy land here during the second biennale. Camping out one night, she heard the sounds of opera playing as the festival lurched on into the night. She was in awe and bought property a month before the third biennale. 

For the literary festival, she offers up both her garage library, the Psycho Jim Research Center, named for a pseudo ambassador to the nearby Slab City, and her oasis-like meditation garden. We speak surrounded by a border of lemon trees, passion fruit, a free-book hut, and the lilting sounds of a sitar player plucking songs in the library, telling listeners to “play the world you want to live in.” 

“This is an anarchist living space,” says Devi. She told the biennale folks, “Don’t put me on your map. Just let people wander in.” She toils over the 3,000 books she’s collected and archived, including a healthy stock donated by another Bombay Beach resident who inherited the books when her father-in-law died. He wanted them to stay in Bombay Beach.

“My heart and soul gave me instruction that I am following in my work in this material world,” says Devi by way of explanation. She calls her garden the Cult of Realities Grhastha Matha, Grhastha being Sanskrit for householder, and acknowledges this by saying, “We serve the householder.” Her approach to her many visitors is lax and reflective of her own deep-seeded belief that everyone should have access to books. “Just get them back eventually, even if you check it out this season and bring it back another two or three seasons from now. Or give the book to someone who will appreciate it,” she says to nearly everyone that comes in to browse. 

“I want to be informed of how my space is being used by the festivals,” she says, “but I also want to be hands-off. Anarchist living spaces mean this is mine. But you can come in.” Devi shrugs often, downplaying her generosity and openness, but displaying an unchecked passion and awe for anyone who cares enough to come by. 

 And it’s clear speaking with locals and visitors like these: This isn’t the land of faded glory. It’s not a cautionary tale. There’s an undeniable fountain of need. An unromantic off-the-grid string of fragile compounds, fenced in by lingering debris and yes, the occasionally staggering off-beat sculpture or art installation. But there’s also an undeniable tinge of hope, fed by the unshakeable feeling that the community here has cracked the formula on mutual aid, and has also carved out the message that escaping Bombay Beach isn’t the sole determinant of a success story. There’s something valiant, too, in the people who have stayed. And in the effort to explore not just what the town once was, but what it could still be. 

(Photo by Lauren Abunassar)

It’s a balance Ray Evans strikes as he maintains the vintage 70s mobile home willed to him via a trust from his grandfather. He’s opened it up for people in the community to come and take things. And while another local teases him about this as we wait for another lecture to kick off in the Art Barn, “man you’re going to get robbed,” he says, Evans insists: The history there is for everyone. Maybe it’s also why he has a whole wall in his Huntington Beach home fixed with remnants of wood he’s collected from Bombay Beach.  

One thing is for sure: Gina Frangello says lit fest 2.0 will absolutely return again next year. And maybe it’s Ray Evans who put it best: “The desert is more alive than people know.”