Gathering a “Relay of Voices” along the Mississippi River

Victoria Bradford Styrbicki collects stories of the river, from its headwaters to the Gulf.

by Jesse Davis for Memphis Magazine

Artist, athlete, and cultural producer Victoria Bradford Styrbicki has been thinking about water recently. Maybe that’s the norm in these days of rising heat indexes, or maybe it’s just her Louisiana roots asserting themselves. Styrbicki originally hails from Lake Charles, Louisiana, a place where water is in the very name. Three bayous flow through the city, and it’s bordered by the Calcasieu River. Maybe that goes a little way to explaining why Styrbicki is running (and biking) such a long way — all the way along the Mississippi River, from the headwaters in Minnesota to the mouth of the river in her home state of Louisiana.

Victoria Bradford Styrbicki reflects on the trail ahead as she runs a segment of the Relay route on the Baton Rouge levee.

The project, which Styrbicki calls Relay of Voices, will bring her to the Bluff City in September. Of course, there’s more to Relay of Voices than just following the river and taking in the scenery. “It really isn’t just about a woman running and biking down the Mississippi River,” Styrbicki says. “I’m going to take a pilgrimage and travel on foot along that waterway from the headwaters down to the Gulf of Mexico to try to understand what home is.”

Styrbicki is an artist and cultural producer working across the lines of public art, dance, social practice, and installation. She works as executive and artistic director of A House Unbuilt, a nonprofit focused on movement research. She refers to the work she does there as “social choreography,” moving people both physically and conceptually toward greater connectivity. She describes social choreography as “listening to the body as a vehicle that tells stories.” Styrbicki adds, “Your actions and behaviors are routines and rituals, kind of the rhythms of life.”

An impromptu dance after a run in Natchez as choreographer Victoria Bradford Styrbicki travels downriver.

For Relay of Voices, Styrbicki has partnered with the Water Institute of the Gulf, who will work to GPS-locate the data collected by Styrbicki and her team. “We carry GPS-enabled cameras,” Styrbicki says. She and a support team have been running and biking down the Mississippi for two months now — since July 5th — and have stopped for scheduled meetings with a diverse array of Americans who live and work along the Mississippi. Styrbicki collects data — the “voices” in Relay of Voices — from her meetings, and the Water Institute is able to map the frequency with which certain words and phrases are used. In this way, Styrbicki is creating a real relay of voices — a record of the way our stories travel along our most storied and historic waterway.

“I basically spatially map that data and look at patterns,” Styrbicki explains. “Then we can take those [results] and put them alongside [an] artistic rendering of the stories that we tell and kind of build something more comprehensive. Kind of a marriage between art science.” The result will be not unlike the “word clouds” used to diagram the repetition of words and phrases — and will illustrate the way stories, like those who tell them, travel the river. 

A House Unbuilt members participate in some high-intensity interval training at their Mana Contemporary studio in Chicago.

Styrbicki studied visual arts, anthropology, and theology at the University of Notre Dame and received her Master of Fine Arts degree in visual arts and performance at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she later worked as the program director of Chicago Dancemakers Forum. Her work has often, in recent years, kept her in Chicago and other major cities, but she couldn’t help thinking about the stories of other, often underrepresented, Americans. “I started to think, ‘Should I be taking this practice and doing it only in cities, or should I be taking it home?’”

Victoria Bradford Styrbicki builds engagement through a planning meeting in Elsberry, Missouri. 

That trip home will be a long one. Relay of Voices is scheduled to make its way to the mouth of the Mississippi on November 5th. But two months into the project, Styrbicki feels confident she’s reaching people — and learning from them. “We’ve been able to interact with farmers, with arts folks, with all kinds of people from different angles. Fishermen, people who have relationships to the logging up in Minnesota, and young people who are just moving into some of the smaller towns and just starting up businesses.”

A scene familiar to most Memphians — an oil tanker on the Mississippi River.

“This is not really about us as the travelers,” Styrbicki says. “It really is about the people we’re engaging with and their stories and their lives.” Styrbicki will be traveling through Memphis speaking with a diverse sampling of Bluff City personalities on Saturday, September 21st, and in West Memphis, Arkansas, on Sunday, September 22nd.

Mayor Errick Simmons and Executive Director Victoria Bradford Styrbicki rally a group of Greenville, Mississippi, residents around Relay of Voices
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