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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Sarah Kanouse: Offering an Alternate Sensory Engagement with Place



In her fascinating work America Ponds, Sarah Kanouse inhabits a unique version of the character of the explorer. This artist’s version of a naturalist is distinct in that one has “a skewed vision of what that world might be, one that is not presented as Edenic landscape or wilderness but a landscape that is deeply imbricated with the human and the industrial—to look at it is to look at ourselves.”

America Ponds tells the story of a small piece of land in southern Illinois, the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to being a wildlife refuge and recreation space for the public, it houses munitions factories and was declared a Superfund site and placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List in the 1980s.

Over the years, various facilities at Crab Orchard have produced highlighter pens, furniture, car parts, and more. Today, General Dynamics, a multibillion-dollar defense company, has multiple factories on-site, where they make ammunition. Photography inside the boundaries of the refuge is restricted to points of interest designated by the Fish and Game Department.

Unable to photograph or film there without permission, Kanouse found alternative ways to make her research on the place and its history available to the local community, using sound as a strategy to reveal the complex nature of the refuge. Her audio tour slyly navigates the space and educates listeners about its history as a mixed-use landscape.

By appropriating the marketing tools of tourism—manufacturing a tour, creating an audio guide—artists like Kanouse can present a different interpretation of landscape and create new narratives for audiences. In the case of Crab Orchard, the government presents one interpretation of the refuge while Kanouse’s audio tour offers her audience an alternative one.

With its marsh, walking trails, and viewing stations, Crab Orchard was designed by the government to “look” like nature, promote the idea of nature as protected, and in a symbiotic relationship between conservation and recreation.

America Ponds provides a different perspective by revealing the complex interrelationship of industry and open space. The audio tour allows listeners to consider more deeply what constitutes a “wildlife refuge” and how we define “nature” in present-day culture.

“A space of conservation lets everything else go on as usual,” Kanouse declares. Basically, in order to define nature as a place that needs protection, you need to have a few strip malls nearby. The duality of protection and development still dominates representations of the American landscape, but as more artists engage in critiques of its use—as America Ponds does—perhaps this dynamic will shift.



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Cynthia Hooper: The Poetics of Infrastructure

Cynthia Hooper’s passion for infrastructure is palpable. She is a self-described “infrastructure geek.” Trained as a painter, Hooper applies a formal aesthetic approach—emphasizing light and color—to her video work. The project we discussed is a collection of videos about water and the environment titled Anthropogenic Aquascapes that explores land use, frequently in politically charged landscapes.1_CH_Klamath_Stillsm

In 2004, after noticing enormous tanker trucks passing her house daily, she became curious about their contents. Further examination revealed that the trucks were transporting contaminated water from a wastewater treatment plant to the nearby landfill at the rate of two tanker trucks per day. Hooper discovered that excess contaminated water was escaping from the unlined landfill and seeping under the nearby homes, including her own. This experience, which hit close to home, inspired her interest in the politics of water.

An enormous amount of research goes into each of her videos, and yet they are not exposés or even documentaries; they are quiet—almost silent—visual meditations on land use. But as with minimalist poetry, the images are deliberately arranged to allow for the most basic and individual properties of the infrastructure or waterway to disclose something unexpected. It seems that it would be impossible to achieve the deeply engaging, reductive quality of representation—where each shot is vital to the work as a whole—without having internalized the landscape beforehand.

In Jefferson’s Monuments, an eight-minute video featuring four controversial dams along Oregon’s Klamath River, the dams are as lovely as the hills behind them.

Hooper’s skill at framing the shots and weaving them together blends the natural and man-made into a cohesive landscape.

Although Hooper explained that those dams were the largest, and really the only, “monuments” in the “state” of Jefferson, her video does not romanticize the Old West. Rather, it portrays its subject matter as elements existing in the present. For more than a generation, the dams have modified both the material and cultural landscape of this region. Hooper has memorialized them as integral to the fabric, for better or worse, of the present-day ecology of the Klamath River Basin.

Hooper sees the videos as “anti-hyperbolic,” taking a significantly different approach from those artworks in which exaggeration is specifically calculated to grab people’s attention. Until quite recently, few contemporary artists were invested in visually representing infrastructure; its quotidian nature rarely captures much public interest. Hooper succeeds in making the systems as captivating for her audience as they are for her, and the wider public appears ready to reflect more deeply on the relationship and interplays between infrastructure and natural landscape. Hooper’s art reveals landscapes as complex processes—continuously unfolding.


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Elizabeth Ellsworth & Jamie Kruse: A Warning Sign to Last 10,000 Years

Artists and creative types are often looking for an idea with legs: something that can adapt and evolve to carry forth an enduring theme. With the Marking Deep Time Studio, the legs are everything.



Conceived in 2011 by smudge—a collaborative nonprofit design studio comprised of artist-professor Elizabeth Ellsworth and artist-designer Jamie Kruse, who create research-driven work about land use—the goal is to mark nuclear test sites across America in a way that could protect future earth-dwellers from danger for as long as the sites are radioactive.

Currently, several of these former underground nuclear sites are marked with nothing more than a wooden post riddled with bullet holes. Ellsworth and Kruse told me that containing nuclear waste might be one of the biggest design challenges we face. “As a species we have created a situation where it is essential that we learn how to design for at least ten thousand years.”

I came across the proposal for the Marking Deep Time Studio while I was searching through a database on the website for the Institute for Wishful Thinking, an organization that promotes and facilitates artist-in-residence programs with the US government

The Marking Deep Time Studio proposes a long-term collaboration between smudge, the Office of Legacy Management (a government agency established in 2003 by the US Department of Energy, charged with overseeing post-closure responsibilities associated with the legacy of WWII and the Cold War), and design students to create markers for the sites of ten underground nuclear tests conducted during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Smudge found their inspiration for the Marking Deep Time Studio from a US government design project established in 1991 in association with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. WIPP is a Department of Energy facility—the only one of its kind in the country—where the government has been storing the nuclear waste created by defense research.

The Department of Energy, who manages the plant, has been collaborating for years with a team of linguists, scientists, science fiction writers, anthropologists, and futurists to devise a warning system or site marker that will last for up to ten thousand years once the repository has been closed.

For smudge, the design process is a continuing one; their proposal calls for the project collaborators to reconvene every five years for at least the next half century to update the signage, making it responsive to changing times rather than creating notices intended to endure for thousands of years.

They view a continual process of engagement as a way to encourage people to think more deeply about the layer of material—nuclear waste—that humans have added to the planet. In the end, the ten enduring signs may not be posted in English, printed in emoji, or plastered with a rehashed Mr. Yuk. We may need to think entirely outside the norm in order to create a warning system that can endure millennia.

The fact that the Department of Energy has been engaging with a group of cultural producers for more than twenty years indicates that the government also believes in the power of the aesthetic experience. Ten thousand years may sound like forever to most of us, but for those dealing with deep time? It’s but the blink of an eye.

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The Myth of Preserving “Pure” Nature

140508-004-19724EA1In American mythology, the settlement of the West was the story of hardy pioneers scratching out rugged new lives, though in reality, by the time most pioneers arrived, much of the western landscape was owned and developed by agricultural and lumber interests. According to historian David E. Nye, land left over from government railroad grants was intended for settlers, but it was often sold off to corporations en masse.

By the late nineteenth century, the frontier landscape had been gridded into cities, towns, and neighborhoods in a matter of a few decades. In response to these rapid changes, a movement sprang up to preserve forests and undeveloped tracts of land.

Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation in the early 1900s establishing the five new  national parks and prohibiting human habitation on them. Roosevelt’s conservationism—a response to the growing awareness that landscape was being destroyed in the name of progress—is linked to a dark era in American history: the violent removal of Native Americans from their land.

The history of murder and dispossession of Native Americans casts a shadow on the tourist-driven narratives that glorify the “American” pioneer. The success of the parks required that they be considered pure spaces of nature, defined by not only what existed within their boundaries but also what lay beyond them. Much of their appeal came from the way they provided respite from urban life.

Throughout the 1800s, human intervention in the landscape became perceived dualistically, either as progressive or as destructive—and more than a century later, this dualism persists in environmental discourse. Likewise, landscape was most often discussed in dualistic terms—natural/unnatural, beautiful/ugly, pristine/ruined—when, in reality, it is most often both, and something more altogether.

As research for my book The New Explorers, I set out to meet with a group of artist-explorers who engage American land as an ongoing material record of national identity. Their artwork examines the social and political interactions that shape present-day land use practices in landscapes formerly considered the frontier that are organized by epic technological feats epic technological feats of engineering, defined by tourist practices, or filled with subterranean radioactive material.

Landscape is a continuous process, as are human apprehensions and interpretations of it. Painters, photographers, prose writers, and poets played vital roles in fostering American national foundation narratives, underscoring the concept of landscape as not only a material endeavor but also a culturally significant enterprise. In The New Explorers, I examine how these landscape narratives offer valuable insight into a continuing conversation about American identity.

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Allison Davies: Landscapes with a Mission

“I needed to find a reason to be in those landscapes, because they have been photographed so many times before that just taking a photograph of them was not enough,” Allison Davies explained as she looked at the mysterious figure who appears throughout her book of landscape photographs, titled Outerland.


The book has no text, just images of majestic landscapes of the American West that frequently include an ambiguous character clad in a white jumpsuit with an unidentifiable insignia on its back. Who is the anonymous figure, and what is their purpose in these vast open spaces?

The idea of landscape photography as a tool for nation building hit home for a college-age Davies when she discovered a box of small leather-bound books filled with the photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, a member of one of the early geologic teams sent by the government to survey the Western frontier.

The books that she uncovered—more than a hundred copies of the same title—had been produced for members of Congress as documentation. Davies recognized many of the images in the book and told me she admired them as “beautiful landscapes of the American West.” But in this contemporary context, Davies began to interpret the images as more than just views of sublime landscapes—they were, in her words, “imperialist propaganda.”

Davies’s project is a formal investigation into the aesthetics of landscape and an innovative examination of the iconic role landscape plays in visual culture. The images are gorgeous and mysterious. When I asked Davies about the motivations for her character’s presence and actions, she would frequently refer to her in the third person, though it is, in reality, Davies herself in the photo. Davies sees her as “a scientist in the landscape—under the auspices of performing scientific experiments. She feels compelled to go to these places and do all her experiments because that is her job—that’s what she does.”

Although Davies reveals that she perceives the character as female, the fact that the figure’s gender for the most part is obscured makes the images all the more fascinating. Davies has fashioned an inventive strategy for reappropriating landscapes that for so long had been strictly the territory of male fantasies.

Davies remains enamored of the early male European American explorers of the continent and their eagerness to believe and promote the idea that they were the first to discover a place. The notion, she says, was “naïve and dumb” but nevertheless “grand—what an amazing feeling that must have been!”

When I spoke to Davies for my book, we agreed that no female has ever really experienced the powerful sensation of discovery to which the early American explorers had been privy. Women adventurers, few as they were, generally are not associated with the imperialistic tradition of claim staking. Perhaps that’s why it was important to Davies that her character seemed to have a reason to be in the landscapes she appears in.

Inspired by images of landscapes presented as propaganda, Davies created a world where there is no colonization—the explorer does not come as conqueror. “You never see me put a flag down,” says Davies.

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Is the Drive to Explore Linked to Madness?

In a 2011 issue of the New, Yorker Swedish biologist Svante Pääbo discussed with writer Elizabeth Kolbert the possibility of a gene that might explain why modern humans (as distinct from Neanderthals) began, as he put it, “venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land.” Pääbo mused that “Part of that is technology, of course; you have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some m3_CS_Granddness there.”

No other animals have traversed the globe as humans have, so what drives us? Pääbo believes he has identified a genetic code that can explain the touch of madness that prompts humans to become explorers. While fear and non-necessity keep every other creature from adventuring past natural borders, we—or at least some among us—have the need to search for new places and unexplored ideas.

At some point in all of my conversations with the artists featured in The New Explorers, I brought up the possibility of an “explorer gene”—a genetic mutation that would impel certain people to push past physical and psychological boundaries in pursuit of something new or somehow unseen. There seemed no denying the possibility that a genetic “madness” played a part in the artistic inquiries of the twelve artist-explorers I feature in my book.


The artists’ responses to this notion were remarkably similar. First, they exchanged knowing looks with me, and then we shared nervous laughter. Even in the present day, unlike their male counterparts—who often relish the role of the daring explorer even if it means people find them a bit mad—it’s uncomfortable for women to identify with madness.


In American culture, the great explorers of yore are immortalized—their epic adventures woven into the fabric of what it means to be American. But the heroes are all men. What about the women who possess the so-called explorer gene? If there isn’t glory to be readily won from their endeavors, what are they after?


Storm-chasing iceberg portraitist Camille Seaman was game to acknowledge that a “freak mutation” could be responsible for shaping her choice of subject matter, which she often take great risks to get close to. The photographer spoke of being drawn to the unforgiving wilderness as, “an inexplicable itch, and I think I have had it as long as I can remember.” Perhaps there is something markedly different about Seaman’s very makeup that compels her to sail the poles in search of icebergs and chase down deadly storms.


According to Pääbo’s speculation, adventurers must be motivated by either madness or curiosity. As an artist and cultural critic, I was driven by curiosity, setting out on my own expedition to engage with a new kind of female artist-explorer, to find out why they do it and what they have discovered.


With so little geographic territory on earth left to discover, a genetically driven need may explain why the idea of exploration has not become obsolete. The compulsion to see something new, to leave a familiar space, to believe you have what it takes to reach whatever out of sight place you yearn for still excites us and makes adventurers and explorers out of a select few. The archetype of the explorer, still a relevant and compelling figure in the American public’s imagination, is ripe for redefinition. Twenty-first-century female artist-explorers carry on the longstanding tradition with a decidedly different ethos, one that emphasizes conversation over conquering.


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Everything Is Alive: Camille Seaman’s Portraits of Ice

Camille Seaman does very little research before taking her journeys—she just goes, usually with no idea of what to expect. Her first trip to “the ice,” as she calls it, was a serendipitous one.



In 1999, she agreed to give up her seat on an overbooked flight in exchange for a free ticket anywhere on Alaska Airlines. When she arrived in Alaska, in the early spring of 2000, the temperature was thirty degrees below zero, and the airline had lost her luggage. Outfitted by local indigenous women in the airport, she set off walking toward the sea ice into white oblivion. Within an hour of her arrival in Kotzebue, word had spread throughout the tiny
community of the woman who had lost her luggage and was walking to the ice.

A couple approached her on a snowmobile to inform her that her destination, the edge of the Bering Sea, was at least twenty-two miles away. She didn’t make it to the sea that day, but that walk put her on a new path. Not yet a professional photographer, Seaman began to contact photographers whose work she greatly admired and ask them a lot of questions.

In 2004, she traveled to Tibet with photojournalist Steve McCurry, who is best known for his iconic image of the Afghan girl that appeared on the cover of National Geographic. McCurry impressed upon her the importance of light and light quality in portraiture, which led to a significant breakthrough in her work.

After returning from Tibet, Seaman and her family took a trip to Antarctica to take photographs. There had been innumerable opportunities to make portraits in Tibet, but in Antarctica there were no people to photograph. Out of necessity, Seaman completely shifted her strategy. She decided to “photograph everything as if it’s a person. It didn’t matter whether it was a hut, a rock, a penguin, or an iceberg.”

One of the most striking aspects of Seaman’s iceberg series is the unusual color palette in which her subjects are rendered—a smoky gray and steely blue reminiscent of seventeenth-century Flemish oil paintings. Seaman clearly doesn’t experience icebergs as white.

Although Seaman’s images are aesthetically beautiful, they do not read as merely sculptural or architectural; her forms are more stirring. Drawing on her skill as a portrait photographer, she works with the extraordinary Antarctic light in her attempts to capture the icebergs as living matter. When I pressed Seaman for more on her point of view, she told me, “What is the point of just showing you what I saw? I want you to feel what I saw. Emotion is as important to me as the physical representation.”

The photographs are beautiful historical portraits. It is Seaman’s intention to honor the icebergs’ existence as elders. They do not fill up the frame as powerful, indestructible objects. In fact, many of the icebergs in Seaman’s photographs no longer exist. She would like viewers to understand that although icebergs are very old and complex formations, they start out as water and they return to water. As the artist notes, “I have snuck in this teaching that everything is interconnected, that everything is alive.”


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Art Meets Science: Illustrating Deep Time Through Portraits of Nature

Of all the artists’ projects featured in The New Explorers, the one the book begins with, Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things in the World, is one of the more unusual. For more than a decade, Sussman has traveled all over the world to seek out and photograph organisms that are at least two thousand years old. She recalled for me how she unexpectedly lit upon the idea while having dinner one night with friends in Brooklyn after recounting the tale of a trip to Japan that involved a pilgrimage to an island in search of a seven-thousand-year-old tree. The experience of locating this ancient organism triggered in Sussman what has become a lifelong passion for deep time: a concept that measures time in terms of the earth’s history rather human history, a context in which time can feel disconcertingly vast.

Although Sussman had been making landscape photographs for years, the images in The Oldest Living Things in the World are very different from her previous landscape photography work. Rather than emphasizing the relationship between humans and nature, these images are more like portraits of the organisms themselves.


Sussman intentionally and unscientifically anthropomorphizes her nonhuman subject matter. She feels this approach allows her to foster a greater sense of connection between the viewer and the organisms.

Although the project appears to be more scientific than what is normally classified as art—the images have even been included in some scientific journals—Sussman works with the understanding that she is an artist, not a scientist. Walking a fine line between aesthetic imperative and scientific documentation, Sussman finds that her challenge is to engage the viewer. Some of the organisms in The Oldest Living Things in the World possess visually striking and unique features, but most are unremarkable; some are even difficult to see, remaining hidden in plain sight. Sussman makes them visible by creating both a sense of wonder and intimacy. These are the true elders on this planet we share.

Sussman imbues each subject with as much personality as she can, breaking down the “us-them” barrier between the viewer and ancient non-human organisms. Although some of the organisms are already environmentally protected by various agencies like UNESCO, many remain vulnerable, existing as they do in exposed and unprotected landscapes. Sussman hopes to connect the organisms she photographs to the larger world, with the ultimate goal of ensuring their protection. As an artist-adventurer, she bears witness to these organisms with an awareness that she and her camera are revealing a vast continuum. In the artist’s words, “Being old is not the same as being immortal.”

By offering visual evidence that the earth’s history predates human history, her portraits of ancient natural forms are her effort to make deep time visible and relatable. Through the lens of The Oldest Living Things in the World, Sussman presents the earth’s deep history as a new frontier.

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Reimagining the Role of the Explorer


If there is no geographic territory on earth left to discover, are explorers obsolete?

In the twenty-first century, the farthest reaches of the earth have been surveyed, mapped, and photographed. One could argue that our planet is now in a near-perpetual state of overexposure. With no “new” lands left to discover and conquer, is the archetype of the explorer still relevant?

During the mid-nineteenth century, artists’ depictions played influential roles in romanticizing the American landscape, presenting it as pregnant with possibility. Painters, photographers, writers, and poets established and perpetuated the foundational narratives of America, emphasizing the notion of landscape not only as a natural phenomenon but as an intellectual and cultural endeavor.

Early explorers of the continent—male European American adventurers and documentarians—generated the myth that they were the first to discover the landscape of the American West. Now that discovery eludes women and men equally, exploration has expanded to the domain of anyone intrepid enough to go beyond the beaten path, the “No Entry” sign, and even the “Toxic Waste” warning.

Perhaps for the first time in America’s history, female artists are active participants in shaping the public’s perceptions and generating narratives about land. Under the ethos of the masculine American explorer-adventurer, women had never truly had access to the powerful narratives associated with the longtime and enduring imperialistic tradition of discovery.

The American idea of expedition, removed from the familiar context of masculine achievement and self-aggrandizing discovery, finds new life in the hands of the twelve women artist-adventurers in The New Explorers. How do these artists move beyond the legacy of manifest destiny and imperialism, beyond the hyper-beautiful, near-fantastical representations of landscape that characterized the works of artists such as Ansel Adams and Albert Bierstadt and make meaning in the present day American landscape?

As American culture slowly begins to let go of outdated mythologies—such as the ideal of true nature as pristine, the antidote for the ills of civilization—there is space, as well as a need, to forge new meaning. The artists I spoke to for my book engage the land and what resides within it, highlighting relationship and interconnectivity as fresh approaches to the landscape—notions that supersede the classically American ideology and heroics of rugged individualism.

Not one of these twelve intrepid artists suffers from the delusion that she is “discovering” the land in which she creates her art, yet each one is rising to the challenge to shape new meaning in land that has already been defined. The artists use photography, modern experiential tourism, and video to offer fresh perspectives that demonstrate there is still an abundance of opportunity for discovery in the twenty-first century landscape.










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