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Relay of Voices research expedition travels length of Mississippi

Relay of Voices embarked on its four-month expedition down the Mississippi River on Tuesday, leaving from the headwaters at Itasca State Park. This week, the team will make stops at the Itasca Biological Field Station, Bemidji, Cass Lake and Bena. (Submitted photo)

Relay of Voices, a four-month long expedition from the headwaters to the mouth of the Mississippi River, launched July 9.

Spearheaded by Victoria Bradford Styrbicki with the assistance of a "relay team" made up of support staff and regional volunteers, the relay embarks on a mission to collect individual stories across the Mississippi River region, acting as a mobile studio space traversing the landscape, giving everyone involved the opportunity to engage in the artistic process and feel the urgency of being connected in space and time.

The entire endeavor will take place from July through November 2019.

Relay of Voices has been working with 104 communities on the expedition as it travels downriver through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Each stop along the way has been identified and vetted into an organized route to provide accurate representation of both the river and diversity of the communities surrounding. 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.

According to Relay of Voices, the river is home to a collection of small towns ranging between 200 and 60,000 in population, anchored by seven cities with populations over 100,000.

"We want to support a culture of listening around the communities of the Mississippi River," says Styrbicki. "As we build a physical vocabulary drawn from these lives that are shaped around a volatile natural resource as well as a reliance on community relationships, a story that resonates beyond the river and connects all Americans will emerge. Through accumulation and just being present, we hope to be a catalyst for all the voices of the river while also providing insightful data for scientific purposes."

Relay has partnered with the Water Institute of the Gulf to gather interview and geographic data from fieldwork which reveals the overwhelming need to understand how the "One River" affects the outcomes at its terminal.

The Water Institute of the Gulf's Human Dimensions Director and Social Geographer, Scott Hemmerling, will help shape the questions the Relay researchers ask in interviews with local residents along the route as well as provide GPS body cameras for the researchers to geolocate the information they gather. This data will then be processed by the Institute in order to be collated for future use in studies and continued fieldwork in Louisiana.

The Relay team will "gather the landscape" making observations with their senses as well as with GPS body cameras mounted to their torsos or bikes. This landscape data will be used in mapping analysis by the Water Institute of the Gulf as well as shared at the performance event held in each town upon Relay's arrival.

Many communities have also planned a walking, running, or cycling escort in or out of town to share in the effort as a group. Creative placemaking activities in towns consist of welcomes, afternoon interactions with individual local residents, and a performance event in the evening. Interaction participants have been selected by the local partners, reaching deep into the community to address diversity of age, background, race/ethnicity, profession and relationship to the river.

Relay has partnered with 29 Convention and Visitors Bureaus,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.