If you're after peace and quiet, Venice Beach, Los Angeles is probably not for you. But if you're looking for a neverending carnival ... Photographs by Martin Salter. Words by Andrew Gumbel
"So what do you do for a living?" asks the man in the Hawaiian shirt and reflector shades to his neighbour at the Sidewalk Cafe. "Me?" comes the smart-aleck response. "I don't have a job. I'm an actor." Welcome to Venice Beach, where the would-be beautiful people of southern California come to fill in the cracks in their existence, where sun-drenched idleness is a studied art and every stunt - the roller-blades, the mystic religion, the incense-burning, the over-rehearsed conversation - is an exercise in nonchalance intended to impress someone, somehow, somewhere.

They call it the Boardwalk, this narrow strip of shops, cafes and crass tourist attractions wedged in between the dinky beach cottages and the broad, flat expanse of the Pacific sands. But really it is an elongated stage, a platform on which the ambitious, the undiscovered and the disaffected can take a strident step off the Hollywood treadmill and play out their fantasies to an audience of tourists, day-trippers, casual strollers and, most of all, themselves.

If it weren't so theatrical, it would be the perfect expression of Californian eccentricity and individualism, a shrine to religions both personal and global. The snake-charmer, the tarot-card reader, the New Age oil vendor, the Hare Krishnas saying their prayers, the orthodox Jews vainly preaching modesty and awe before the Divine to a crowd of self-infatuated beach bums in Lycra and shades.

Even the skinheads and bikers and homeless bums look like extras on some giant film set; bit-players in the great pageant that could have qualified as a true sub-culture were it not for the whirring of the cameras and the gawping curiosity of the uninitiated. Venice Beach is not so much a geographical reality as a movie, with its rock'n'roll soundtrack, its choreographed roller- skate dancers, its modish canvas of life in every bizarre form imaginable. And then some.

Like a movie, Venice Beach is at one remove from the world around. Those mountain-bikers and roller-bladers zipping down the cycle path from Santa Monica pier undergo a strange transformation as they pass the invisible borderline at Rose Avenue - no longer just yuppies exercising under the palm trees, they become icons of southern California beach culture just as surely as the body-builders up on Muscle Beach or the nearby performing chihuahuas.

Likewise, the struggling actors, writers, cocktail waitresses and estate agents who populate the rag-tag cluster of cottages and clumpy cheap apartment blocks just east of the beach take on a strange new aura as they approach the sand. They are no longer their workaday selves, but representative figures in some great beach-side show; modern reincarnations of the poets and underground rock musicians and hustlers who first gave Venice its modern flavour back in the Sixties. Beyond the suntans, the strap-on Walkmans and the running shoes, there is something unmistakably sleazy about Venice. It wants desperately to be an advert for Californian wholesomeness, but falls crucially short.

Back at the turn of the century, the tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney dreamed of turning the Ballona dunes here into a grandiose homage to European Renaissance culture, and himself into an enlightened doge for the end of the millennium. The arcaded streets and Byzantine onion domes were to be a testing ground for his theories of self-improvement and wholesome sexual reproduction - a genetic experiment in which the tallest, blondest, most muscular Americans would meet, imbibe at the fountain of high culture, and procreate like rabbits.

The experiment failed, mainly because the New Venetians were far more interested in funfairs and side-shows than they were in performances by Sarah Bernhardt or lectures on eugenics. Then, in 1912, the state Board of Health declared Abbot Kinney's 16 miles of canals to be a public hazard and filled most of them in, shattering his dreams of creating a sophisticated beach suburb and initiating Venice's long period of decline - a decline only accelerated with the discovery of oil in the Thirties.

The crumbling arcades, oil derricks and seedy boarding houses were what attracted Orson Welles when he sought a location for the corrupt border town in his film Touch of Evil. Venice had indeed become a border - between civilisation and chaos, respectability and decadence. That was what, in the Sixties, attracted beatnik poets and rock singers like Jim Morrison, who found the same marginal edge and cheap living in Venice as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg had found a decade earlier in San Francisco's North Beach.

Now, as the century closes and property speculation once again rears its head, Venice has become a strange melting-pot of clashing cultures - young professional home-owners and Internet executives, would-be bohemians and struggling actors, drug-dealers and neo-Nazis. Think London's Notting Hill before it got too trendy, and then throw in a few exotic pet snakes and palm trees.

Come to Venice at the weekend, and its defects and slowly rusting buildings are overwhelmed by the great Boardwalk spectacle. Peer on it at night, or an early weekday morning, and you glimpse the cold reality behind the mask: a lonely, insecure place, its streets empty but for the occasional weirdo; a spooky, echoing theatre anxiously waiting for the next show to begin.