Background

Relay of Voices, a project of 501c3 nonprofit A House Unbuilt (AHU), is a research expedition traveling down the Mississippi River Trail with the goal of gathering “voices” from the landscape and individual residents of the river region. The effort is shaped by a theory of “movement research” which uses the body as the empathetic center for listening and understanding, and it seeks to learn about how people live with water and the natural resources that surround it. Cultural data and geographic narratives will be gathered for future use by scientists, artists and policy makers.

Relay is spearheaded by artist, athlete, and Louisiana native, Victoria Bradford Styrbicki, who is working to connect the voices of river communities by traveling the 2,400 miles of the river at a pedestrian scale with the assistance of a “relay team” made up of support staff and regional volunteers. Relay team members include relay director Victoria Bradford Styrbicki, relay project support Tom Styrbicki, certified triathlon coach Nic King-Ruley, and project manager Dinah Bradford, as well as countless members from river communities. A House Unbuilt company members who previously contributed to the development of the project include Zack Bailey, Carla Gruby, Angela Gronroos, Lisa Leszczewicz, Ione Sanders, Kara Jefts, and Caitlin Rafferty. A primary reason for choosing the Mississippi River region was the dichotomy of rural and urban communities there, with many of them still making a living off the water and land. The river is home to a collection of small towns ranging between 200 and 60,000 in population anchored by 7 cities with populations over 100,000, serving as beacons of culture and urbanity along the water way.

A major component of Relay is daily interactions to gather the voices of each community. Styrbicki will immerse herself in one-on-one exchanges with local residents in each town where she has arrived by documenting daily gestures, movements, actions, rhythms, rituals and behaviors through what is referred to as “whole body listening.” Through this empathetic listening process, she gathers the unique stories of the individual participants through both words and movement shared through the interaction experience.

Relay “interactions” involve:
— a two- to three-hour time investment; spent at work, leisure, everyday life
— Styrbicki as “participant observer”
— Styrbicki will observe, participate when possible, and engage in conversation when not disruptive
— Styrbicki will ask a few, specific questions but mostly seek to hear unguarded thoughts about anything the interview subject chooses to share

After the collection of stories are gathered in one place, the relay team will traverse the landscape to the next community to share the voices already gathered, connecting one community with the next. The relay team members consist of regional volunteers serving as surrogate walkers, runners, cyclists or paddlers. When no regional volunteers step in to carry the voices downriver, Styrbicki will approach the distance as a duathlon—a run out of town, cycling the longer stretch between, followed by a run into the next town. Many communities have also organized a group run in or out of town with Relaywhile others will wait and offer a welcome in town.

While each community engagement only lasts a day, this interaction and relay practice can leave a significant impression as person-to-person encounters accumulate in the body as well as in the data, building into a connective landscape with others along the river.

Relay has partnered with 29 Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVBs),19 Chambers of Commerce, 30 arts, culture and educational organizations, 45 city and county governments, as well as hundreds of individual volunteers local to each community to solidify programming and to assist with accommodation, transportation, event space and nourishment to support the expedition as it travels south. Through partnerships with organizations like The Mississippi River Parkway Commission (MRPC), the Mississippi River Network (MRN) and The Water Institute of the Gulf, A House Unbuilt is connecting with each of the 104 communities in a distinct way, accessing their cultural touchstones, and adapting its special technique of movement and storytelling to any venue or audience.