At the opening reception for “Final Meals,” a recent show at Testsite, Michael Thomas, one of the founding members of the Chicago-based artist collective Lucky Pierre, read the following list of foods aloud: “Chocolate birthday cake with ‘2/23/90’ written on top, seven pink candles, one coconut, kiwi fruit juice, pineapple juice, one mango, grapes, lettuce, cottage cheese, peaches, one banana, one delicious apple, chef salad without meat and with thousand island dressing, fruit salad, cheese, and tomato slices.”
Thomas’ eyes shimmered with earnest feeling as he repeated “seven pink candles.”
Between 1982 and 2003, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice archived the final meal requests of every death row inmate and posted them on their website. The list of foods Thomas read aloud was one of the 310 final meals the TDCJ archived and publicly posted.
[su_pullquote] Lucky Pierre’s “Final Meals” will be included in “Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System” at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston Aug. 25, 2018- Jan. 6, 2019.[/su_pullquote]
Without explaining what was remarkable about this specific request, it was clear that Thomas and the collective felt it emblematized the subtle power of this information. The poetry of this list of foods exists in its ability to belie our usual expectations of the kind of American condemned to death.
A meal’s emotional and sentimental resonance is probably the closest thing our partisan population has to a universal pleasure — eating is closely interwoven with memory, with family, with moments of escape. The foods we love seem to convey something particular about us, something humanizing. In a final meal request we glimpse a moment of vulnerability, of humanity in figures we are meant to see as monstrous.
Brought to Austin’s Testsite gallery by independent curator Risa Puleo, “Final Meals” is simple in structure and complex in emotional affect. The project began about 15 years ago when one of the group’s members discovered the Texas list of final meals and showed it to the others. The list was sometimes banal (double meat cheeseburger all the way with fries), and sometimes odd (one jar of dill pickles). Many prisoners refused the meal, while some made symbolic requests, such as “Justice, Equality, and World Peace.”
The TDCJ stopped publishing the final meal request after complaints that it was “offensive.” In fact, officials ended the practice of serving special final meals altogether in 2011 at the urging of Senator John Whitmire, who felt this privilege was “extremely inappropriate.”
The Pierres felt moved to make something of the list, and their practice started small. The structure works like this: they cook the meal and serve it to a volunteer. Once seated alone at a table covered with a white tablecloth, a volunteer may choose to eat the food, or just sit with it. For about 25 minutes the volunteer is filmed, the camera positioned above. The performer in the video, as it were, remains anonymous, their face not visible. The resulting video, in black and white, is simple, minimal, reminiscent of surveillance footage.
The collective hopes to film all 310 final meals published by TDCJ, and they are approaching the end of the project in Texas. Altogether, the 22-minute-per-meal film will stretch more than 150 hours.
When she learned of the project Puleo, who is a native of Texas, felt it was important to bring “Final Meals” to the state before the project wrapped filming. Puleo is organizing “Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System,” a large–scale exhibition featuring artists who engage the criminal justice system at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston opening August 25.
In search of more insight into the “Final Meals” project, I spent the morning before I ate my meal posted up in the elegant modern kitchen of Testsite watching three of the Pierre collective cook. (Testsite is the in-home gallery of arts patron Laurence Miller.)
A large and fluid group with members that have come in and out over the years, Lucky Pierre has been working together since 1994 when the two founding members — Thomas, and Mary Zerkel — met at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Three other members joined Thomas and Zerkel at Testsite, where they had a friendly and teasing rapport with each other as they cooked and arranged table linens and cameras.
The Pierres tell me that over the years, the “Final Meals” project has grown with them. In the early days, they would make one or two meals when they had the money to afford the ingredients. One of the Pierres admitted that the first meals they selected were usually things like “One tortilla and a glass of water.” They shot most of the films in friends’ apartments.
Since then the collective has integrated itself within an active and dynamic progressive community in Chicago. Lucky Pierre has developed its engagement with criminal justice reform movements, and specifically with the ideas of restorative justice and prison abolition. Eventually the artists incorporated the idea of community meal events, including one at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum, in which people would dine together while two formerly incarcerated people spoke about their experiences.
By the time I sat down for my meal later in the day, I was very hungry. I hadn’t eaten yet, and I had in front of me “1 Cheeseburger with American, Cheddar and Mozzarella Cheese, without mayonnaise, mustard or onions; Large French Fries; Bowl of Macaroni and Cheese; Lasagna with 2 slices of Garlic Bread; 4 oz. of Nacho Cheese; 3 Large Cinnamon Rolls; 5 Scrambled Eggs; 8 pints of Chocolate Milk.” I had spent some time thinking in advance about my approach—was eating or not eating more solemn? Did I need to be solemn? What did the decision signify? Would the person who had ordered this meal have wanted me to eat it?
Puleo identified the experience of participating in “Final Meals” as akin to becoming a kind of proxy for the condemned. For myself, faced with all those plates of food, I contemplated the incredible intimacy of such an encounter but also the colossal emptiness. In some illogical effort at connection, I wanted to taste every aspect of the meal. Here I was, shoveling bland macaroni and cheese into my face, trying to know a person who was irreparably beyond my reach. By about a quarter of the way through the food I was overcome with sadness and nausea.
Lucky Pierre, Meal 268 from “Final Meals”
The decision to exclude the name of the inmate you are eating for, as well as the crime, is crucial to the Lucky Pierres’ framework. The spectacular quality of murder, the feelings we derive from shows like “Law and Order” or “Cops,” blind us to the incredible vulnerability of perpetrators of violent crime. Our nation’s justice system trains us to think about morality as transactional — those who engage in violence are subject to the same. Perhaps the central difficulty of fighting the death penalty is empathy. How do we empathize with those members of society who scare us most? The demographic disconnect between most participants of the project — privileged denizens of the art world — and the marginalized groups who constitute the majority of capital punishment recipients makes this distance even more poignant.
At the opening reception, I spoke with Walter C. Long, a staunch advocate against capital punishment and the founder of the Texas After Violence Project. Long worried that making art of the death row prisoners’ final meals risked perpetuating the spectacle of the tradition, which he saw as part and parcel of the state’s efforts to make a brutish ritual seem sacred.
For Long, the death penalty constitutes a “trauma-organized system” that threatens not only the inmate condemned, but their family, their fellow inmates, the prison guards, the executioners, the chaplains, and our society at large through forced complicity in regulated homicide. Rather than provide justice and relief to the victims of a crime, Long argues that the death penalty prolongs their experience of trauma by drawing them into a cycle of re-enacted violence and victimization.
For its part, TAVP has worked with the University of Texas’s Human Rights Documentation Initiative to film and archive oral histories of people whose lives have been affected by the death penalty or incarceration. I was particularly moved by their interview with Doug Smith, a criminal justice policy analyst who was formerly incarcerated at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, where the state’s execution chamber is housed. Smith talks about both the traumatic effect of being an inmate in the facility where executions happened, but also its desensitizing effect over time. His voice straining, he describes the system of death in Texas as an “assembly line.” Smith’s testimony bears witness to the false civility of institutional structures that attempt to tame and contain capital punishment’s unending parade of death and its impact on our culture.
Lucky Pierre provided a response book, available in Testsite’s living room, for people to write down thoughts or feelings after their meal. Many participants wrote of a sense of grief, of confusion, of wonder. Many speculated about who had ordered their meal, what they had done, what they were like. The performance asks, but does not force you to take 25 minutes to think about a person who is no longer here. While the artists do not direct your response, this freedom is powerful. In the end, the project puts each participating volunteer in a space to contemplate a death row inmate’s individuality, humanity, and desires.
Citizens without a connection to the criminal justice system are segregated emotionally and psychologically from incarcerated people. The “Final Meals” project does not give you true access to a death row inmate, but it does instill a kind of yearning to know them.
“Final Meals” made me think about the unknowability of this person who had been stripped of all legal and civil rights. None of the questions the experience raised for me had answers, and I was left feeling the disorientation of seeing only a vacuum, the inaccessibility of meaning in the shadow of our civil society.
I was left wanting to know more, and do more.
If you’d like to get involved with the Texas After Violence Project, visit: texasafterviolence.org/