This is an exhibit about two important Mt. Morris institutions, at most twenty miles in distance from each other: the New Deal Gallery and Letchworth State Park. Both were recipients of federal funding the Great Depression. Between 1933 and 1942, more than 3,000 unemployed young men worked at four different Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) locations at Letchworth State Park; much of its infrastructure and distinctive appearance dates to this period. Meanwhile, more than 250 works of art were allocated to the Mt. Morris Tuberculosis Hospital as part of the Federal Art Program. The distinct missions of these geographical neighbors did not allow for much interaction, but in the years since both have become important community institutions.
“Open World” is an experiment in thinking about the two programs within a single framework, perhaps in ways not currently appreciated. First, it requires us to re-think the idea of Nature itself—which is usually envisioned as a type of space distinct from where we live, with its own meanings and even aesthetics. Yet consider visitors traveling to Letchworth State Park. Probably we will have seen photographs or read accounts of its beauty, and once there we'll navigate its trails admiring the scenery. Probably we’ll take photographs of ourselves and family, posting the images to social media sites. Our attention moves between the natural world and virtual worlds. Where did our ideas of nature come from in the first place? There seems to be a more reciprocal loop between the natural spaces we visit and our representations of those spaces.
Twenty years before CCC crews arrived, the Letchworth estate was recovering from sawmill operations and deforestation. As shown in the map above, trees had been planted in “blocks, irregular in form...set out with due regard for landscape and color effects.” It was envisioned that the park would “contain in miniature a forest of a richness and a variety which can be witnessed nowhere else on the globe.” What visitors today experience as natural was being hailed in 1912 as the realization of “this artist’s, poet’s dream” (Dow 203, 205). As the writer Timothy Morton has asked, are we capable of envisioning ecology without nature?
This exhibit uses a term anachronous to the 1930s. Open world video games are those designed to be less linear in their narratives, more free-roaming. Players build places (as in the Minecraft images shown above) and have experiences that can be very immersive. The pages that follow aren't about video games, but it's important to remember that this newer technology borrowed many conventions from landscape painting and landscape architecture. Its genealogy therefore lets us discern unexpected things in the past—for our purposes, fragments of an ecology without nature. And here’s where the New Deal Gallery comes in, decades before open world games: standing before a landscape painting, viewers not only look at a canvas, but through it as a framed window and imagine themselves in a world. Meanwhile at Letchworth State Park, visitors navigate spaces constructed by CCC workers, who created beautiful stone walls, trails, bridges, shelters, and viewpoints. Painters and stonemasons alike were constructing spaces that are experienced as beautiful and deeply immersive.
—Dow, Charles M. “A Great Living Tree Museum: The Letchworth Park Arboretum.” American Review of Reviews 45 (1912): 203-208. Web version available at HathiTrust.
—Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Harvard University Press, 2007.
—Moss, Richard. "Roam Free: A History of Open-World Gaming." Ars Technica 25 Mar. 2017. Website link here.
Credits: Jay Bang, Niamh McCrohan, Samantha Schmeer, Emily Spina, Griffin VanOstrand, Ken Cooper, Abigail Ritz.