Waterboarding At Coney Island: The Thrill That Chills

A painted wall at the Waterboard Thrill Ride. i i

At the Waterboard Thrill Ride, near the Coney Island Side Show, there's a picture on the wall that features a restrained cartoon character who looks a lot like SpongeBob SquarePants. Margot Adler/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Margot Adler/NPR
A painted wall at the Waterboard Thrill Ride.

At the Waterboard Thrill Ride, near the Coney Island Side Show, there's a picture on the wall that features a restrained cartoon character who looks a lot like SpongeBob SquarePants.

Margot Adler/NPR
Two robotic figures at the Waterboard Thrill Ride i i

If you deposit a dollar in a slot, two robotic figures come to life, for 15 seconds. An interrogator in black pours a kettle of water into the mouth of a "prisoner" in an orange jumpsuit who is tied down. The orange-suited robot convulses as the water is poured into its mouth. Margot Adler/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Margot Adler/NPR
Two robotic figures at the Waterboard Thrill Ride

If you deposit a dollar in a slot, two robotic figures come to life, for 15 seconds. An interrogator in black pours a kettle of water into the mouth of a "prisoner" in an orange jumpsuit who is tied down. The orange-suited robot convulses as the water is poured into its mouth.

Margot Adler/NPR
Artist Steve Powers i i

Artist Steve Powers says that when he conceived of the Coney Island "attraction," he wanted to make a statement: "What's more obscene, saying that waterboarding is not torture or creating a waterboard thrill ride?" Margot Adler/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Margot Adler/NPR
Artist Steve Powers

Artist Steve Powers says that when he conceived of the Coney Island "attraction," he wanted to make a statement: "What's more obscene, saying that waterboarding is not torture or creating a waterboard thrill ride?"

Margot Adler/NPR

It might not be surprising that waterboarding, the controversial interrogation technique that simulates drowning and that many have called torture, would become the subject of satire.

But it was still shocking to many when artist Steve Powers created a Coney Island attraction called the Waterboard Thrill Ride. It's not really a ride, it's more of a peep show.

Powers took over an old photo studio near the Coney Island Side Show. There's a picture on the wall of someone who is tied down and looks a lot like SpongeBob SquarePants. "It don't Gitmo better" is painted above the picture, a reference to the Guantanamo Bay prison. You climb three cinder block steps up to a small window with prison bars, where you can peer into a cell. If you deposit a dollar in a slot, two robotic figures come to life for 15 seconds. An interrogator in black pours a kettle of water into the mouth of a "prisoner" in an orange jumpsuit who is tied down. The orange-suited robot convulses as the water is poured into its mouth.

People step up to the window. Some put money in, and some don't. Tami and Joe Brady put their dollar in and found it a little shocking. "The man is going up and down, and there is water coming out of this metal thing," Tami exclaims. "Oh my goodness, it's like a water torture."

Some people are not impressed. "I thought it would be funnier, more satirical," one passerby observes. But Mark Kehoe, an artist and the former art director of the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, says it reminds him of an act that he once saw on the Bowery that was intended as a comment on Nazi atrocities. "What's different and more interesting about this," Kehoe says, "here we are looking at our own atrocities."

Powers, the artist who conceived of the waterboarding "attraction," has worked and lived in Coney Island. When he was first offered the space, he said, he immediately thought of a torture chamber. It looked like a prison. There was an old sink in the corner that Powers said "hadn't been used in 30 years."

The Waterboard Thrill Ride fits perfectly with Coney Island's "ethos," he says.

"Coney Island has been a fun house mirror reflecting and refracting the best and worst of America for 100 years now," Powers says. And he notes that humor can be a powerful tool to deal with horrific issues, that taking real life horror and reducing it to a cheap thrill can demonstrate how cheap life has become.

Powers says people's reactions have run the gamut from the pro-waterboarding Navy veteran who loved it, to people who find it repulsive and over the top. But in the end, Powers says, he is finding the whole idea of waterboarding confusing.

Originally, he says, he wanted to make a statement: "What's more obscene, saying that waterboarding is not torture or creating a waterboard thrill ride?" But he acknowledges that unless you're an enemy combatant, or perhaps an interrogator of enemy combatants, there is no way to really experience waterboarding. So, like a few people before him, he set out to get as close to the experience as possible. He invited a few lawyers who might be looking at issues like the treatment of detainees and invited them to experience the interrogation technique themselves. And he planned to try it, too.

He invited about 30 people to join him in a small room Friday night about a block from his art attraction. He brought in a former Army interrogator, Mike Ritz, who trains people in interrogation techniques and what it feels like to be a prisoner of war. Ritz emphasized that the Army does not use waterboarding, a technique he believes is ineffective.

Ritz said he was a bit worried that the demonstration might make a mockery of the issue, but he agreed to participate because "it's become very easy for society to look the other way." He added that it is important to get people talking about the issue.

Suddenly, there was little humor or satire in the room.

Powers and the attorneys were brought in, one by one. Their heads were covered. Ritz put a black rag into their mouths and started pouring water until they gagged or resisted. Everyone realized it was a pale imitation of the real thing. After all, there was even a medic in the room.

Neil Goldman, a retired attorney, said he was glad to get out of there. "It was frightening."

For his part, Powers said, he learned a little more about waterboarding, even though it was such a carefully controlled experience. "It was done as safely as humanly possible," he said, "but it was still terrible."

Powers said his art piece asks this question: What's more obscene, saying waterboarding isn't torture or creating a waterboard thrill ride?

The Waterboard Thrill Ride is sponsored by the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time, and is part of its Democracy in America project, a national campaign that will involve more than 40 artists.

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