Engagement with the national parks is happening all the time outside of the parks themselves. Through participation in the material and visual culture of the parks, we remain simultaneously in dialogue with the national parks while physically isolated from the space itself. In that sense, our yearning and desire to connect with the national parks and the rugged wilderness they embody has alienated us from experiencing them in the physical. Divided into three moments - the material, the visual, and the backyard - this exhibition seeks to examine how technology allows us to engage and disengage with the national parks. Ultimately, it traces how the impulse to engage with natural spaces external to us might be brought back to one’s own immediate world.
The parks, founded upon the ideal of immortalizing the most sublime destinations of the United States, have come to symbolize a distinctly American and sacred destination. Early environmentalist like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau helped to instill the cultural notion that America’s most wild places, holy in their sublimity, deserved protecting (Cronon 25). Yet, the parks have come to represent more than just spaces of divine beauty — they also to symbolize the explicitly nationalist ideal of American citizens as collective owners of the American experience. Ken Burns’ documentary series on the national parks make clear this phenomenon: “You, you, are the owner of some of the best seafront property this nation’s got. You own magnificent waterfalls. You own stunning views of mountains and stunning views of gorgeous canyons. They belong to you, they’re yours,” Burns tell us (Grebowicz 5). Thus, engagement with the parks offers one the promise for a sense of collective belonging to the American experiment.
Through the material and visual culture of the parks we create an aesthetic and visual immersion into the parks while removing ourselves from a physical relationship with them. While the cultivation of wilderness as an aesthetic and a visual experience, rather than a physical one, may seem alienating, perhaps it is merely suggestive of a greater possibility for our connection with the natural world. By re-imaging our relationship with the wilderness and by finding a place for wilderness at home, we can begin to shape a relationship with the natural that is more approximate to our lived experiences.