The Bombay Beach Biennale is an Art Feast – with Film Festival – on the shores of a Toxic Lake
Amidst all the film events around the world, there was a special one that caught my attention. First, it had been mentioned to me by a friend in tech. Second, it sounded too far out there to be true. A description of it read, “The Bombay Beach International Film Festival is an iconic event that has been running continuously since April 1st, 1923. It is a celebration of the arts, showcasing the best in filmmaking from all over the world. And in 2023, the festival will be celebrating its centennial anniversary…Over the years, the festival has faced numerous challenges…But perhaps the most unique challenge occurred in the 1980s when the Salton Sea flooded the town, submerging much of it underwater. Despite this setback, the festival organizers refused to cancel the event… Filmmakers and guests donned scuba gear to watch the screenings. The 100th annual Bombay Beach International Film Festival promises to be an unforgettable experience… Mark your calendars for April 1st 2023.” This definitely sparked my curiosity, I was determined to find out more and I did.
It turns out that this was partially an April fools’ prank, but some of it was true. True, there were no underwater screenings, but there was a film festival happening under very peculiar circumstances. I packed my bags and drove to Bombay Beach.
Set on the shores of the Salton Sea, this town, which was once a thriving resort destination in the 1950s, became the target of agricultural pollution and plummeting water levels. Well known as California’s most polluted lake, the Salton Sea has lost a third of its water over the past 25 years. The concentration of chemicals and salt in the remaining water has exponentially increased, leading to mass die-offs of fish and birds. And it is in this almost post-apocalyptic world that the Bombay Beach Biennale has taken place since 2015, with only a two year hiatus due to Covid.
When I got to the destination I was greeted with an array of art installations that definitely set the tone for what was coming next. In the midst of philosophy conferences, dance performances, poetry sessions and DJ sets, a film festival was running fueled by this context that only enhanced its reach. In tune with the spirit of the festival, I managed through word of mouth to talk with one of the founders and two of the film festival coordinators.
As one of the founders, Tao (Ruspoli), how did the idea of the Bombay Beach Biennale come about?
I started coming here in 2011. I was moved by this town and the ecological crisis of its Sea. I thought it would be interesting to have a philosophy conference in this intriguing place. An old childhood friend, Stefan Ashkenazi, a hotelier and surrealist creator of events, and Lily Johnson White, who is a patron of the arts, and I happened to convene here. We agreed it would be interesting to try to bring attention to the crisis of the Salton Sea by using art. We wanted to shine a light on something that had been ignored.
Philosophically, there is also a point to be made. More and more of the world is homogenized. Everything is the same, and that’s a structural impediment to creativity. It’s useful to leave the masses without too many ideas. So, when you come here, to a place where all systems have failed, there is opportunity for new ideas and a new way to live together. Here, we can privilege imagination and creativity. Despite all the sadness surrounding the Salton Sea and the economic inequality and the ecological issues, this is one of the best places to be.
How did you start spreading the word about this Biennale?
I started bringing friends here. I bought a place here in 2011, and at the time there was nowhere to sleep. This is the desert, but if you add water, this becomes a very fertile ground. Half of the winter produce in the USA is grown in this Imperial Valley. I believe it’s the same with art and people. In the right environment people become very prolific. It’s magical. People start to flourish with ideas in this place. The unique thing about this Biennale is that it’s totally free to the public. We have no commercial sponsors, but we also do not publicize it at all. You have to know it’s happening. Then people show up and all this is just there. Let’s say the people that are invited here are the people that are paying attention. The art we show here is also site-specific. A lot of the films we show are about or shot in Bombay Beach or the Salton Sea. They do not necessarily have to be about this place, but it’s nice to have art in its context. When you put art in a Museum, you take it out of its habitat so it loses a lot of its meaning.
Dulcinee DeGuere and Jeff Frost, who are two of the “System Architects” of the film festival, added that everything in Bombay Beach happens very organically. That’s why it works so well. Both of them artists who were attracted to the mysteriousness of this part of the desert, they moved here and thrived on the possibilities this place presented. They stress that the movies they present in the Biennale may not fit in other festivals in the world, but they need to be special and fascinating in order to be screened.
Back to Tao …
Tao, what’s the actual goal, and how is the original Bombay Beach community receiving this movement?
I would say about 90% of the community is on board and glad this is happening. Our goal is year round engagement with everyone here. We are not interested in events. They are a spectator’s medium. We want people to get involved and inspired. As far as the festival is concerned… to how many places can you go where you dance all night, wake up at 9 am and go to a lecture about From Death to Art leaning on the theories of Nietzsche and Heidegger?