The Salton Sea has long been a fixture of the SoCal imagination.
As a former resort community, the so-called Inland "Riviera" has since dried up due to progressive pollution, salinization and agricultural runoff. The surface of the lake has retreated thousands of acres and become inhospitable to marine and avian life. There are very few holdouts in the midst of such a catastrophe.
However, the desolate "lakefront" properties have inspired a new generation of visionary artists – most notably Michael Cera who directed and starred in a short film inspired by the region's wasteland aesthetic.
And now the former resort town of Bombay Beach hosts an art festival that rivals both Coachella and Burning Man alike.
'The way the future used to be '
In its second iteration this year, Bombay Beach Biennale drew over 100 artists and performers from various disciplines to explore the theme "the way the future used to be."
The festival featured everything from a custom-made opera house to a video installation in an abandoned rental property. Despite the outside talent, local residents and businesses were heavily involved.
Local hotel owner and festival host, Stefan Ashkenazy, worked to maintain an authentic presence saying: "The whole idea is to create art that stays and lives here, that enhances the town and embellishes its off-beatedness."
The festival was entirely self-funded and free, serving as a meaningful counterpoint to profit-driven festivals like Coachella. And there is much more at stake than attendance and online recognition.
In an interview with LA Weekly, organizer Jen Tighe Harpur spoke to the importance of local influence: "They want to keep the town alive. Towns here are dying away. This festival brought people."
James Ostrer's CurrentSee
Some of the most distinctive work at the festival comes from London-based artist and political agitator James Ostrer. Ostrer's work has always engaged with social and political issues, employing site-specific exhibition strategies to heighten the presence as well as relevance of the work.
At Salton Sea, Ostrer manifested his creative presence through a fully-functioning "Opera House." The derelict building was purchased by Ostrer and Stefan Ashkenazy, and transformed into a site-specific art installation that shifted the discourse to the environmentally-devastated region.
Inside "Opera House," Ostrer exhibited his CurrentSee series of semi-permanent sculptural pieces, which were set against a backdrop of thousands of flip-flops that had washed ashore onto a beach in Nigeria.
The flip-flops evoke a complicated mix of whimsy and trauma. On one hand, they signal the fun, beach-going context that attracts so many people to Salton Sea.
But they also suggest the perils of immigration, the loss of life in oversea journeys, and of course a troubling resonance with the iconic piles of shoes at the Holocaust memorial at Auschwitz.
However, Ostrer, as per usual, packages these volatile themes into stunning visual metaphors that instill as much joy as they do anxiety in the spectators. And in the cultural and regional oddity that is Salton Sea, they feel right at home.
Check out more photos from this year's Bombay Beach Biennale below and visit the festival's website to learn more!