Amy Balkin: Private Ownership, Public Space, and the Commons

Amy Balkin’s work addresses a fundamentally American question: Who owns the land? She’d once envisioned a desert Eden that would belong to all human beings but quickly discovered that there is no legal construct in the United States for a flexible form of ownership that could allow for land to be owned by humanity at large.


This is the Public Domain is a conceptual artwork that brings to light the legal process that Balkin navigates as she tries to transfer the land she purchased into the public sphere in the form of an international commons—land with no enclosures, and on which the natural resources should be made accessible to all members of society.

For several years, Balkin attempted to procure land through donation or purchase, and finally, in 2003, she succeeded. She purchased a 2.64-acre parcel of land for $1,125 on eBay. The remote parcel is located in Kern County, California, between Tehachapi and Mojave, two miles south of Highway 58 and approximately 125 miles from Los Angeles.

Although Balkin’s project is web-based and centers on a piece of land that is virtually inaccessible, it is very much a socially engaged work. Balkin aims to create a shared space independent of citizenship, modeled on the historic example of the Commons.

In her attempt to transfer the land to the commons, she had to navigate trust law, the laws of eminent domain, and intellectual property law, ultimately exposing how US property law inhibits the option of commonly held land by restricting the designation of land as either private or public. By walking viewers through her legal processes, Balkin’s project also contributes to a broader debate about the ways art can incite inquiry about the invisible systems that shape lives.

Balkin seeks to define how land might exist outside of the legal and social tradition of American property ownership. This is the Public Domain questions not only land-use law, but also long-held and cherished beliefs about individualism and private ownership of the American landscape. The project makes it clear that we’re a culture with few models for establishing nonproprietary public space.

This is the Public Domain demonstrates how legal frameworks dictate not only the physical geography but the social landscape as well. The artist came to realize that in America there is virtually no route to collective ownership. Balkin still hasn’t given up on her efforts to create a new commons in the California desert, however. She continues to update as she creates a new strategy for engaging with the West, a landscape inextricably linked to ownership and rugged individualism.

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