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Domus - - CONTENTS - Text by Mar­i­anna Guernieri

Bom­bay Beach Bi­en­nale

A place in Cal­i­for­nia mixes a toxic lake, a self-man­aged com­mu­nity, an in­de­pen­dent art fes­ti­val and Hol­ly­wood to­gether for a few days each year — four in­gre­di­ents that are in­ject­ing life back into it While watch­ing the film­ing of a doc­u­men­tary, we dis­cover an Amer­ica on the edge, sur­rounded by the breath­tak­ing scenery of the Im­pe­rial Val­ley, about an hour from Palm Springs. Our des­ti­na­tion is the Bom­bay Beach Bi­en­nale and Slab City, an in­for­mal set­tle­ment in the heart of the desert. In­hab­ited by nu­mer­ous Burn­ers (‘Burn­ing Man’ ac­tivists), Bom­bay Beach lies on the shores of the Sal­ton Sea, a lake formed less than 100 years ago.

In 1905, the Colorado River flooded fol­low­ing a mis­cal­cu­la­tion by Cal­i­for­nia Development Com­pany en­gi­neers who, in an at­tempt to im­prove the ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, cre­ated one of Amer­ica’s least-known en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters.

In 1908, Cal­i­for­nia’s largest ar­ti­fi­cial lake (890 sq km) was born and its shores be­came a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion in the 1950s, favoured by Frank Si­na­tra and the Beach Boys. Over time, soil salin­ity and pes­ti­cides ex­ter­mi­nated most of the fish and tons of toxic al­gae were dumped in the wa­ter. The beaches un­for­tu­nately be­came an aban­doned out­door os­suary.

Bom­bay Beach is one of many Cen­sus-Des­ig­nated Places: ar­eas iden­ti­fied only for sta­tis­ti­cal pur­poses. Its ap­prox­i­mately 300 in­hab­i­tants come from highly di­verse back­grounds and with sto­ries that of­ten speak of poverty but also re­silience. “The good Lord brought me here,” is how many people ex­plain why they chose to live in this place. Some moved here to treat their can­cer in Mex­ico at af­ford­able prices; oth­ers sold their cows and pigs to buy a piece of land; oth­ers wanted to start a new life af­ter prison. There are Viet­nam vet­er­ans,

re­li­gious ac­tivists, mu­si­cians and re­tirees.

The heart of the com­mu­nity is the Ski Inn, a bar hav­ing walls lined with thou­sands of one-dol­lar bills.

This is a bruised but com­bat­ive Amer­ica where the wel­fare sys­tem is re­vealed in all its fal­li­bil­ity and con­tra­dic­tions.

This set­tle­ment in the deep Cal­i­for­nian South comes to life three days a year for an ec­cen­tric, dreamy and he­do­nis­tic fes­ti­val that, be­fore the amused eyes of its in­hab­i­tants, rocks the town with the ar­rival of An­ge­lenos ‘rad­i­cals’ ac­com­pa­nied by artists, Har­vard, UCLA and Columbia pro­fes­sors, Balkan mu­si­cians, ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dents, as too the most un­der­ground par­ties, per­form­ers, cir­cus acts, opera singers, San Fran­cisco Opera dancers, ac­tors and models. Then the lo­cals re­alise that the old aban­doned shacks can be con­verted into in­cred­i­ble spa­ces.

“This place was ex­ploited for its scenic ef­fects to shoot movies. When they’d fin­ished film­ing, ev­ery­thing dis­ap­peared,” ex­plains Tao Rus­poli, the Ital­ian-Amer­i­can film­maker who founded the Bi­en­nale with Ste­fan Ashke­nazy, owner of an art ho­tel in Hol­ly­wood, and John­son & John­son heiress Lily John­son White. The fes­ti­val was thought up to high­light en­vi­ron­men­tal ur­gen­cies and con­trib­ute to the re­birth of the town along with its res­i­dents: de­cay as a means of re­gen­er­a­tion through art.

Above: a hot-air balloon lands on the shores of the Sal­ton Sea Op­po­site page: Randy Polumbo’s in­stal­la­tion. The trip to the Bom­bay Beach Bi­en­nale fol­lowed the film­ing of the Elysian Fields film­doc­u­men­tary, di­rected by Su­sanna Della Sala, cin­e­matog­ra­phy by An­drea José di Pasquale

Top and above: Mark Mack Supras­tu­dio, end-of-year projects by UCLA stu­dents Top right: El barco de la muerte by Sean Guer­rero Right: The Tesser­act by Shig, Jes­sica Steiner, Ash­ley Hil­lis, Tessa Mac and Tao Rus­poli

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