Steve Powers: Carney Waterboarding

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking

Steve Powers painting a mural for Joey Skaggs"™ Doody Rudy performance piece in 1999Editor’s note: In 1999, Joey Skaggs invited Steve Powers to paint the mural for Skaggs’ Doody Rudy event. This was a participatory performance piece in Washington Square Park in New York, taking aim at Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s anti-freedom-of-expression policies regarding art, and his autocratic and heartless “quality of life” campaign targeted against the homeless and other unfortunates in the city. The public could, for a $1 donation, toss a handful of dung at the Mayor’s portrait. All the money (a substantial amount) was donated to charity. Steve Powers is continuing the tradition of political activism through performance art with his new waterboarding piece in Coney Island.

Coney Island Sideshow Has Guantà¡namo Theme
by Ariel Kaminer
The New York Times
August 5, 2008

Some people look at Coney Island and see a paradise of carefree entertainment. Others see a cesspool of gritty squalor. Few are those who gaze upon its shrieking kids, grizzled wanderers and fast-talking flimflam artists and see an opportunity for engaged political discourse.

But it was just that improbable impulse that drove the artist Steve Powers to open the new “Waterboard Thrill Ride” on West 12th Street, just off Surf Avenue, in the shadow of the Cyclone and a mere corn dog”™s throw from Nathan”™s.


It looks at first like any other shuttered storefront near the boardwalk: some garish lettering and a cartoonish invitation to a delight or a scam “” in this case there”™s SpongeBob SquarePants saying, “It don”™t Gitmo better!”

If you climb up a few cinderblock steps to the small window, you can look through the bars at a scene meant to invoke a Guantà¡namo Bay interrogation. A lifesize figure in a dark sweatshirt, the hood drawn low over his face, leans over another figure in an orange jumpsuit, his face covered by a towel and his body strapped down on a tilted surface.

Feed a dollar into a slot, the lights go on, and Black Hood pours water up Orange Jumpsuit”™s nose and mouth while Orange Jumpsuit convulses against his restraints for 15 seconds. O.K., kids, who wants more cotton candy!


In interrupting a day at the beach with scenes of the United States government”™s rougher practices, Mr. Powers is being deliberately provocative. “What”™s more obscene,” he asks, “the official position that waterboarding is not torture, or our official position that it”™s a thrill ride?”

But Mr. Powers “” who is represented by a high-profile gallery and has won a Fulbright grant “” doesn”™t come across like a heavy-handed political artist. An easygoing guy with a tall fluff of hair, he was on a recent day wearing pink seersucker shorts and wheeling his 15-month-old son around the boardwalk. He says the purpose of his art isn”™t to tell people what to think, just to get them thinking in the first place.

Fittingly, then, reactions have been all over the map.

Kevin Franke, a recent visitor, was appalled. “It”™s not something to be made fun of,” he said. “It”™s just something they”™re trying to make a quick buck off, I guess.”

Carolyn Rice, a visitor from Massachusetts, was intrigued. “I think it”™s educational because everyone hears about waterboarding, but no one really knows what it is,” she said

For Dave Winters, a Navy veteran, it reaffirmed his belief in the interrogation technique. “I feel it”™s a good idea,” he said. “I feel more strongly about that, yes, having seen this.”

As for Janice Carter, who had her 10-year-old grandson, Roger, in tow, she saw the animatronic figures as just another Coney Island scam. “It”™s a gimmick,” she said. “When they have the sideshow, you see real people. That”™s legit. But this here? Uh-uh.”

Which is all part of Coney Island”™s carnivalesque appeal, said Scott Baker, the outside talker (please: not “barker”) for the freak show next door. “I think it”™s fabulous,” he said, “because it gives us a chance to be political and silly at the same time.”

Mr. Powers, who has undertaken many creative projects in Coney Island, said he started thinking about interrogation when he first saw the cramped, concrete room. “I thought, “˜This looks like a torture chamber,”™ “ he said brightly.

But his initial idea was for real people to undergo real waterboarding, right there in real time. He”™d be the first volunteer, then he”™d perform it on the next guy, who”™d turn the hose on the next one, and so on.

He said his wife was among the first to point out that that might be a tad over the line. (It”™s fun to picture that conversation.) “In the meantime,” he said, “robot waterboarding became a way of exploring the issue without doing any harm. It”™s the perfect Coney Island distraction “” it”™s not quite delivering what it offers, but it”™s putting a unique experience on the table. And it doesn”™t take a great leap of the imagination to look in there and say: “˜That”™s really what”™s going on? That”™s crazy.”™ “

Just in case, on Aug. 15, Mr. Powers and some invited lawyers “” “the group who most stands to benefit from the knowledge,” he says “” will indeed have themselves waterboarded, albeit by a professional trained in interrogation techniques and in a private location. Then the whole macabre installation will move to the Park Avenue Armory, where it will be displayed along with a few dozen other projects from Democracy in America, a series sponsored by Creative Time, the public art fund.

In terms of novelty, submitting to harsh interrogation techniques isn”™t what it once was. Daniel Levin, then the acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, was waterboarded so he could better understand the issues before his office. Since then the artist Coco Fusco made an hourlong video called “Operation Atropos” about undergoing other interrogation techniques. And in the August issue of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens described the horror of being waterboarded “” just months after he described the horror of having his private parts waxed.

Of course none of those people did it across the street from where the World”™s Tiniest Lady once sat.

“There”™s something so shocking about this,” said Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director of Creative Time. “Our hope is that it forces a consideration of an issue that people may not be thinking about “” but they should be thinking about.” Especially, she said, when at the arcade next door people are shooting at Osama bin Laden in post-9/11 video games.

As it happens, the video games at the arcade run more to Super Bike and Big Buck Safari. And it”™s hard to imagine any video game making the kids there rethink the social contract.

So does raising the issue in the incongruous setting of an amusement park, through the sarcastic metaphor of a joy ride, force people to confront their nation”™s political demons? Or does it give them license to shrug them off?

Many people stroll by the installation without even stopping to look. As for those who do, Jodi Taylor, house manager for the freak show, said: “Adults find it very shocking, and kids are like, “˜That stinks.”™ They”™re so desensitized. They have no idea what the ethical issues are. They wish there was water spraying in their face.”

Last Monday a family of former New Yorkers now living in Israel climbed up the cinderblock steps and peered in the barred window. The first thing they saw in the darkened room was the orange-jumpsuited detainee “” and Mr. Powers”™s son, sitting atop him with a merry grin on his face. (His father was tinkering in the background.)

“I love it,” said Ricki Rosen, the mother of the family. “Hilarious!” Her daughter asked what it was all about, and Ms. Rosen responded: “Waterboarding, Sweetie, is a kind of torture where they pour water on people”™s faces so they feel like they”™re drowning. But then there was a big controversy because a lot of Americans are saying you shouldn”™t torture people even if they are terrorists.” She paused. “The baby is hilarious!”

Finished with his tinkering, Mr. Powers opened the door from the cramped room and stepped back out onto the brightly lighted sidewalk. He told Ms. Rosen he had heard the explanation she”™d given her daughter, and he really appreciated it.

Ms. Rosen asked him how people were responding to the installation. “Do they understand it?” she asked.

“Sometimes,” he said. Then he told her where to get the best pizza in Coney Island.

thanks Alex