Curatorial Projects > Capital Culture/Media Punishment (2001)

Capital Culture/Media Punishment - An Installation by Victor Cartagena

September 12 - October 20, 2001
Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco, CA

“Collateral damage? As an American news junkie and a Gulf War veteran…where do they think I learned that [term from]?” – Timothy McVeigh, in a statement to a Fox News channel correspondent, describing as “collateral damage” the 19 children killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing

This exhibition is the culmination of an 18-month exploration of American mass media coverage of capital punishment by San Francisco-based artist Victor Cartagena. In response to the continuing divisive national debate about capital punishment and recent intensified media coverage of the issue via the trial and execution of Timothy McVeigh, Cartagena has positioned himself as a mass media archivist – researching, gathering, clipping, recording, and storing any story produced through print or broadcast media on the issue of capital punishment for the past year and a half. What initially started off as a daily rummage through local newspapers for relevant articles has turned into a focused - nearly obsessive - quest that includes subscribing to numerous nationally distributed magazines, listening to hundreds of hours of both local and syndicated radio talk shows and news programs, and watching hundreds of hours of local, national, and cable television news broadcasts and specialized ‘hard news’ programs like 20/20, Nightline, and 60 Minutes. Amassing hundreds of newspaper and magazine images and articles and hours of radio and television broadcasts surrounding the death penalty debate, Cartagena - utilizing sculpture, video, audio collage, and mixed media - vividly demonstrates how media-saturated our culture has become and asks where the “truth” lies.

Cartagena is also interested in uncovering how people form their stance in relation to one of the most morally, politically, humanly complex issues of our time. Regardless of whether one supports or opposes capital punishment, most of us receive information about the issue through media sources. Where we look for information and how we interpret the information is as critical as the context of the information itself. Cartagena strives to show how mass media coverage of the death penalty issue leans towards the pro-capital punishment side of the debate. We hear through the media that the process of capital punishment – more and more being performed through lethal injection rather than by the faulty electric chair or clunky gas chamber – is gentle and humane. Media correspondents frequently report execution events as “clinical and merciful.” Such media coverage is incredibly biased toward encouraging the general public n to assume that the death penalty is on high moral ground. Furthermore, the prison-industrial complex encounters little opposition or skepticism in American mainstream media. The primary scenarios of transgressive crime and righteous retribution offer the kind of narrative climax that our Hollywood-fed culture craves. Countless television shows and movies base entire storylines on ultimate vengeance as dramatic justice, and as evidenced by Cartagena’s sampling of television broadcasts, many news programs cover the death penalty similarly - as crime, punishment, and “closure.” Are we - the readers, listeners, and viewers of media – complicit in the way news is reported? Do we expect and demand this type of narrative climax? Do we approach the six o’clock news and the forthcoming issue of Time Magazine with the same expectations we have of “entertainment” media?

- Kevin B. Chen