Sylvia Ryerson ’10 spent her last two summers in Kentucky studying for her music and American Studies theses. She graciously answered questions form the Argus via email.
Argus: Can you give me a brief description of what people who come to your presentation should expect?
Sylvia Ryerson: This project is a multi-media inquiry on the narrative of U.S. prison expansion, specifically in Central Appalachia. It includes video, radio, audio and live performances by Paul Edwards, Eoin Callery and myself. The audio and video is built from interviews and material I’ve gathered and been given over the last two summers in eastern Kentucky. The live music is a combination of traditional Appalachian music and new compositions by myself.
Argus: How long have you been working on this presentation, and what was the experience like? What was your artistic process?
S.R: This inquiry began while I was interning at WMMT-FM 8.7, a public community radio station in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, in the summer of 2008. When I showed up, the station manager handed me an old Marantz digital recorder, and told me to go out and find a story to produce for the station. A few weeks later I read an article in the local paper about plans to build a new 1,400 bed federal prison in the county. That article led to this inquiry.
I spent the rest of the summer interviewing local community leaders, business owners, high school kids, federal prison officials, and really anyone who would talk to me about how they felt about the possibility of having a prison come to their community. The piece was aired as a radio documentary on the community radio station in August 2008.
Then this past summer I went back to eastern Kentucky, and traveled around to five different counties where prisons have recently been built. Central Appalachia is one of the most concentrated regions of new prison development in the country. I spoke to prison guards, people who have been formerly incarcerated in the area, local newspaper reporters, county judges, town mayors, tax collectors, librarians, anyone at all that would talk to me about what the process was of bringing the prison to their town, and how they feel about it now that it’s there.
The whole time I was conducting this research I was living in Letcher County, Kentucky, the home of WMMT-FM, where the plans for the proposed Letcher Federal Correctional Institution continue to move forward. All summer I continued to interview people in Letcher county about where the proposal stands at this moment in time. The prison is expected to open in 2013, and will be the fourth new federal prison built in eastern Kentucky since 1992.
Argus: You’re also writing your honors thesis in AMST on the topic of prison expansion. How have the different methods of exploring the same issue fed into one another?
S.R: Both my music project and my thesis go by the same title, as I consider these two projects to be the same inquiry, simply expressed in different mediums.
Argus: This is your final project for your music major. How is music tied into the discussion of prisons in Appalachia?
S.R: I can’t give away too much of what is going to happen, but I believe that it is crucially important to make this reality visible at this moment in time. And in order to make a thing visible, we must make it audible. As William S. Burroughs writes in his essay the invisible generation, “what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear.”
Argus: Can you talk a little about the instrumentation—how and why you chose it, etc?
S.R: The live performance includes toothbrushes, fiddles, wood blocks, slinkys, and certain other necessary items and instruments.
Basically, it is an inquiry on intersecting social realities in intersecting mediums, travelling through space and time, and an anxious attempt to consider how, why and when a singular definition of progress gains momentum.