This is the Public Domain

By Hari Kunzru, 12 January 2004

Hari Kunzru on Amy Balkin's guerilla-conceptual artwork that exposes the near impossibility of creating public space in the US


In recent years, artistic and political engagements with the concept of the commons have tended to focus on the new possibilities emerging online. Digital media is forcing change in IP regimes. Models based on shared, free or open virtualities are proposed to salvage public space at a time when it is physically under threat. As the marketplace becomes a mall and the village green a branded leisure-space the customary rights of free speech and association traditionally attached to such places are also eroded. Amy Balkin, living in California, has opted to look again at real space. Her project This is the Public Domain has a simple aim: ‘to create a public commons that will exist in perpetuity.’ ‘This land,’ she writes, ‘will be permanently available, free, for use by anyone. Citizenship is not necessary to participate.’ In a move which flies in the face of a social and legal system designed specifically to enforce land ownership, she has bought 2.5 acres of land near the Mojave desert and is instituting moves to transfer it out of her name into that of – nobody. Everybody. All of us.

The site is unpromising, squeezed next to a wind farm near the Edwards airforce base. Access is made difficult by the power company which owns the neighbouring area. The biggest challenge however is legal. One real estate lawyer advised Balkin that transferring ownership of land to ‘the public’ might involve exchanging signed contracts with everyone involved!

Balkin knows that her chances of achieving her aim under US law are slim. ‘It could,’ she suggests, ‘be argued that the success of the project would symbolically undermine the sovereignty of the state regarding territorial control, as the public domain would be an international commons within the borders of a state.’ One possible legal strategy is the use of IP law. Unfortunately, a piece of land designated as a conceptual artwork is not considered IP. Another strategy under consideration is placing a sculpture on the land and extending the artwork’s ‘base’ to the borders of the plot. Balkin is following this option by placing a bench on the land, with a small plaque announcing the site’s status. Legal arguments continue. In the meantime if you want to go there, the location isLatitude: 35.082Longitude: -118.2785

This is the Public Domain [ ] Hari Kunzru < > is the author of TheImpressionist and a contributing editor of Mute

Picture Credits

Public Domain site marker / bench in transit, madeby Trevor Tuttle, woodworker. Log donated by Meadowsweet Dairy. Photograph by Amy Balkin, May 2003