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How the Bombay Beach Biennial Gives Back to a Comm...

How the Bombay Beach Biennial Gives Back to a Community in Need

Although our president believes that global warming is a hoax invented by China, there are many places in this country that have had to face the very real effects global warming has left on them. Once such place is Bombay Beach in California, where over the last couple decades the town has turned from a beach resort to a rusted wasteland. The Salton Sea, a 35 mile lake (the largest lake in California) was created in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded into the desert valley. Initially seen as a paradise in the desert, the lake started to rapidly deteriorate by the late 1970’s, due to limited to no rainfall. Now Bombay Beach consists of boarded up resorts, beaches with the bodies of decomposed fish skeletons, and abandoned pools, cars, and buildings. The town today only has 250 residents, who have to travel up to 40 miles by golf cart to be able to get groceries and other daily necessities. The story of Bombay Beach is heartbreaking, but that doesn’t mean the town has given up on itself!

Jen Denike’s installation “Antient” at the Windmill House. Bombay Beach Biennale 2017.

On April 14, we saw the launch of the second year of the Bombay Beach Biennale, a weekend event which hosts over 100 artists, performers, and speakers with the mission of coming together and creating free flowing art that can give back to a community in need. The guests were asked to create work or start a dialogue around this year’s theme: The Way the Future Used to Be. Unlike other more “glitzy” biennales in the art world, Bombay Beach’s entrance, food, and performances are all free and participants are all self-funded. The event reminds us that art at its core is not about commodity- but about community and togetherness. I had a chance to speak with two of the Bombay Beach Biennale founders Lily White and Stefan Ashkenazy, who together with Tao Ruspoli organized the Bombay Biennial this year.

GRACIE: In your own words, tell us a little about the Bombay Biennial.

LILY: The Bombay Beach Biennale is a fully immersive experience, as I have always believed in the transformative power of events like that. Nothing is sold. No tickets are needed to experience it- you just have to show up with integrity! The artists, writers, and performers we chose to work with this year were invited to run wild and in turn they brought real beauty to a place in the world that has fallen on some very hard times. Sometimes art and beauty can be a real catalyst for change!

GRACIE: What role do you think the artist places in raising social awareness? Does the artist have an obligation to dually be an activist?

STEFAN: None whatsoever. Instagram stars with IQs of chipmunks have more impact on social consciousness today. Artists should create from their hearts with no intention of trying to impact anyone other than themselves. They should be free to express themselves and be obliged to nothing.

LILY: Well, I think artists and creatives can be master whistle blowers and awareness raiser through their work, but I don’t think it should ever be an obligation. True activism comes from outrage and a personal connection. All good art that has a political message came from a personal place within the artist and not because it is necessary to be political as an artist! That being said, all of the artists who worked at the Bombay Beach Biennial this year took their impact on the community very seriously. Everything that was made did in fact have a strong socio/political/environmental theme running through it. You can’t go to a place that is so devastated by the follies of man and nit make a comment on it!

GRACIE: And what about you as organizers?

LILY: While our curatorial mission can’t be separated from our relationship to the community of Bombay Beach and their needs, we did not specifically require that the artists make work with social practice in mind. It’s a precarious line to walk through, because we have to be very mindful of the impact of our intervention on the town. You bring too much attention and you can ruin what makes it so strange and magnetic, but not enough attention and it will literally disappear!

GRACIE: That totally all makes sense! Has the town gotten involved at all?

LILY: Yes! There has been a lot of activation within the town. Our friend Dave Day opened the Kintsugi Station, which provides free services and air to the town. While I know the people of Bombay Beach have always loved their home, there is a real pride of place that is more visible within the community now. Some of the art projects, such as James Orstrer’s opera house, Sandy White’s banned book library, and the drive in movie theatre have been left in the care of the town, for them to use as potential revenue sources. So while we do not profit from anything that we made, we try our best to find a way of leaving things that are an asset to the community.

Performance at James Ostrer’s “The Bombay Beach Opera House” at Bombay Beach Biennale 2017.

GRACIE: That’s so amazing Lily! Those sound like amazing projects too. I was also wondering, did our current political situation and the impending threat on environmental protection inspire or change this year’s Bombay Beach Biennial at all?

STEFAN: In my opinion, it’s being rammed down everyone’s throats at every turn! We were happy to have a reprieve from all the self-important preaching. We are creating and celebrating art, music and philosophy in the most unlikely of places for the sheer joy of it!

LILY: I actually think if anything it made us want to buck the system more and be as anarchic and irrelevant as we could be. We have no political statement but we believe in the power of art and beauty to be a force for change!

James Ostrer (seated) with Joseph Walsh of the San Francisco Ballet at Bombay Beach Biennale 2017.

GRACIE: Amen to that! Do you think in general the artworld needs to step up and hold more events like this? How did this event feel different than one solely focused on art?

STEFAN: Yes, I think it’s important for the artworld to take itself less seriously and have the goal of supporting artists without the goal of profiting from them at every turn.

LILY: There is ALWAYS a need to support art and creativity outside the commercial world. Artists and creatives can’t really develop if they are constantly bound to their ability to sell their work. I think because we took our event out of the commercial and for profit paradigm, we gave all of our artists and participants a lot of freedom. They did this for the pure joy of it! And because what they made was considered a gift to the town, there was a lot of care and attention put into their practice. Amazing things happen when you move outside of conventional spaces and let creativity live and breathe.

GRACIE: That’s really awesome Lily. So how did you both go about choosing the participating artists?

STEFAN: The artists I brought in were those whose work I enjoyed and wanted to create an excuse to create with them, ha!

LILY: Yeah, this year and last year the process was very organic and informal. We all had artists that we wanted to bring in and that we knew would dialog well with the environment. We were also lucky this year that people approached us about participating. They are all people whose work and process can’t be separated from the place it was made. Going forward, we are hoping that the curatorial mission will stay decentralized and artist driven. The core pillar will be that whatever is made is in service to the town and community it is created in. what that looks like will be left up to the artists!

GRACIE: Wow, I’m curious to see what comes of that! Speaking of which, what are your other thoughts on continuing this tradition?

STEFAN: There are no boundaries to what we are doing here. We plan on doing it again and plan on having more fun with it!

LILY: We learned a lot this year, while ultimately, we have so much to be proud of, a lot of refining of our mission and organization has been taking place since. Our partnership with the community got much stronger and that is pivotal to whatever we will be doing moving forward. It is my hope that whatever happens in the future, it will maintain a renegade spirit, but one that supports the town and the needs of the place. In my opinion, it would be frivolous and frankly not very creative to not put their needs within the core of our mission!

Christia Mercer giving her lecture “Suffering and Truth: How Women Changed the Course of Philsophy” at Bombay Beach Biennale 2017.


Gracie Brahimy has been working in the arts in New York City for the last three years. She is currently the artist assistant to painter Katherine Bernhardt as well as the press coordinating at Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC. She received her bachelor degree in Liberal Arts at Sarah Lawrence College and will be attending NYU Gallatin for Graduate school in the fall.