Since 2003, San Francisco-based artist Amy Balkin has worked to transfer ownership of a windswept parcel of land in California to each and every person on Earth. Or rather, to have its ownership be under no person, for perpetuity.
This is the Public Domain is an ongoing project testing the limits of public domain, the complications of the laws of the land, and even the sprawl of green energy. It was part of Common Spaces that ended earlier this month at the Kitchen, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Studies curatorial fellows. With a $1,000 grant in graduate school, Balkin looked for cheap property and found the 2.64 acre space lodged alongside an Antelope Valley wind farm in Tehachapi, California. It’s not an inviting place with its scrub foliage and lack of accessibility — the site for it warns to “be prepared for 15-40+ mph winds at all times” — but as a conceptual device it propels a dialogue on ownership, and how hard that is to release.
“I haven’t found a legal strategy to embark on that’s in the right position to pursue, as far as trying to choose one to produce a commons,” Balkin told Hyperallergic over the phone. “That said there are some other things ongoing with the land that may affect the future of it.”
You can follow through her site Balkin’s plunge into different tactics of turning the land over to the public domain, from a public land trust (which is still private ownership), to copyright law (which necessitates some sort of ability to reproduce it), to a Limited Common Property Regime (which would require some strategy for group ownership for the entire world). There’s been added levels of legal process in the over a decade of ownership, as Balkin explains “its status has become more complicated because of changes to infrastructure and energy.” When purchased there was no plan to build the land out, but with each step “all these questions have come up, thinking of law and property and infrastructure and the West and eminent domain and the future of land and migration in California.”
A couple of years ago, she was offered a long-term lease for a wind farm expansion with a land-swap to a more people-friendly location. Although that fell through there’s still the question of the corporate funding for the energy development. There’s also the potential eminent domain of the proposed high-speed rail. And even taking on a new parcel in somewhere with fewer restrictions would again run into the core difficulty of demarcating land that is truly free. “It still comes across the limitation of the nation-state” and its boundaries, “albeit that they are different in other places,” Balkin said.
These are the kind of details that pepper Balkin’s long-reaching, art-activism projects, along with a striving for what may indeed be impossible. Another ongoing project is Public Smog, a conceptual “park in the atmosphere” which, through the acquiring and retiring of emission offsets, aims to generate a public airspace. “They’re both concerned with common pool resources and how the world that we inhabit is shared or not, and those implications and those politics,” she said.
To repurpose Rousseau, everywhere land and air was born free, and everywhere it is in chains. Balkin may never find a way to turn the Antelope Valley parcel over to the public domain, but there’s something compelling in its narrative of commodification of land. Balkin has yet to give up, and in continuing to search for a true international open-access right for the little space of land, will continue to prod at these questions of what a truly public space could be.
Documentation of This is the Public Domain can be found online.