I recently read Brent Cunningham’s essay “Last Meals” in Best Food Writing 2014. The piece investigates the relationship between capital punishment and the prisoner-requested last meal. Cunningham explains how, historically, public executions were intended to provide the community with a sense of retribution for the committed crime, while trying to instill enough fear in the public to deter further crimes from being committed. In 18th century Frankfurt am Main, executees would partake in a Hangman’s Feast with local officials and judges, and around the same time in Bavaria, the executee would share a drink with their executioner on their death day. The drink was called St. John’s Blessing, “named after John the Baptist who is said to have forgiven those who were about to behead him.” These two gestures were intended to provide the executee and the executors with a sense of closure; by eating the meal or drinking the drink, the prisoner agreed to their own death.
Executions gradually moved out of the public square and into the walls of the prison, and information about executions began circulating in penny press papers. Today, the physical act has further detached itself from the community by entering into the disassociated and increasingly clinical avenue of the gurney, but, conversely, many facts about the prisoner, the prison, the gurney, and the poison are readily available online.
Cunningham argues that the sensuality of the last meal has prevailed because of how the State uses it as a psychological tool. Having prisoners decide on their final meal gives enough power and humanity back to the “aberrant and abstract” death row prisoner that the public is able to re-associate and support the State’s decision to eradicate someone who has acted out of their own free will. As crowds would often go to public hangings to be entertained by the behavior of someone in their final moments of life, it seems that many states’ decisions to release information about last meal requests is, cyclically, a way to entice the public with the encoded question, ‘What does a prisoner’s last meal request say about them and their crime?’
Cunningham quotes a scholar named Daniel LaChance: “The state, through the media, reinforces a retributive understanding of the individual as an agent who has acted freely in the world, unfettered by circumstance or social condition. And yet, through myriad other procedures designed to objectify, pacify, and manipulate the offender, the state signals its ability to maintain order and satisfy our retributive urges safely and humanely.” Cunningham continues, “The state, after all, has to distinguish the violence of its punishment from the violence it is punishing.” The driving force of the last meal is the prevailing gesture of offering the meal and not the meal itself, as prisoners often receive an abridged version of what they request based on current budgets. (“So that filet mignon and lobster tail? It’s likely to end up being chopped meat and fish sticks.”) Texas has stopped offering last meals, and many states have stopped releasing information about last meal requests after numerous public complaints. It seems that the “death shy” American public was uncomfortable being manipulated in that way. In the words of Dave Chapelle, they didn’t want to hear that shit. Out of sight, out of mind. But a lot of other information remains for anyone that is looking.
A multi-faceted association is the core of Florence. Tommi constructs an intimate narrative through the manipulation and documentation of presented facts. The transparency of his journey unfolds and we are on it. This information has already been published and is available to anyone with an internet connection. The facts have been stated, but by restating them, he reaches towards an intimacy with a life that has been reduced to a list of facts, towards that contextual mass of perception, history, and memory that swirls beneath the grid, encoded yet unable to fit into the template of State-sanctioned abstraction.
Tommi Kelly (b. 1991) is an artist and musician. He received his BFA from Pratt Institute and is based in Brooklyn NY. He teaches monthly Digital Arts classes at DCTV and is currently working on a new album. See more of his work at www.cargocollective.com/tommikelly.
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