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Perspective: Daillen Culver on Transitory Encounters

Written by Daillen Culver, UVa Student Intern at The Bridge PAI

For the past six months, environmental artist Benjamin Thorp has made the commute from Richmond to Charlottesville to work on a public sound installation project with a diverse group of local youth and the larger Charlottesville community. As a fourth year at UVa, my thesis project centers around the evolution of socially-engaged art. Thus, my interests seemed to serendipitously collide with Benjamin’s project at The Bridge PAI. I soon found myself working as his pseudo-assistant, documenting and observing the role of creative thinking in contemporary pedagogy as well as the ways in which we can use art to engage and empower the Charlottesville community.

From my perspective, although Benjamin’s work has many thematic elements, his residency at The Bridge tackles two major issues. For one, he encourages his students to think critically and to examine their own role in the world around them. Young men from Charlottesville’s Renaissance School are asked to examine their own privilege and how/why their stories may differ from others in the community. They are encouraged to express their ideas through creative mediums like poetry, prose, and specifically sound compilations. Benjamin is now pulling in local middle school students who reside in Charlottesville’s public housing neighborhoods. This new group will engage in similar discussions of community, identity, and artistic collaboration. Ultimately, the two student groups will have the opportunity to work together and learn and grow in an environment defined by creativity, equality, and community.

The second component of Benjamin’s project involves empowering the underrepresented and sharing the rich stories of our local community. Several times, Benjamin has shared this quote by Arundhati Roy with his students from the Renaissance School: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” The greater aim of this project is to more deeply involve local groups in public policy decisions that will affect the Charlottesville community for years to come. To accomplish this, Benjamin’s students have conducted a wide range of interviews with community members and recorded other sounds of the Charlottesville landscape (for example the echo of cars speeding over the Avon Street bridge near the Downtown Mall). These recordings are then compiled and looped in different ways to create a diverse, layered soundscape that can represent or evoke the essence of the Charlottesville community. These sound compilations will eventually be installed in retired C-Ville Weekly news boxes and placed strategically around the City.

This tactic of triggering curiosity through passive involvement appears in other facets of Benjamin’s work. One day, I tagged along as the students explored the area surrounding a local public housing complex. On Post-It notes, they wrote open-ended, thought-provoking questions like “What is your story?” and “How did you get to be where you are now?” These notes were then posted randomly around the public space in hopes of drawing in curious passersby and encouraging them to contemplate their own story and the concept of community.

This project as a whole is incredibly complex, and perhaps its goals are a bit ambitious. But I have already observed significant progress and achievement, from the level of engagement in student discussion to the genuine interactions between different groups within the Charlottesville community. In a City that is so diverse and dynamic, I think that this project brings a unique level of collaboration, contemplation, compassion, and creativity. I can’t wait to see where we go from here!