On Saturday July 26th, next door to the Circus Sideshow in Coney Island (featuring sword swallowers, magicians and performers capable of digesting grubs and snot), artist Steve Powers opened a sideshow of his own. Entitled The Waterboard Thrill Ride, this madcap installation invites visitors to put a buck into a dollar-feeder to witness a clumsy animatronic version of America's legal form of interrogation. If viewers step right up to an exterior wall featuring Spongebob Squarepants strapped down on a table excitedly yelling, "It don't gitmo better," they can peer through a window with a set of jail bars and see a slow, rumbling demonstration of torture a la John Yoo (the Bush administration legal adviser who promoted the possible legality of torture; not to be confused with the like minded-spectacle maker John Woo, director of Mission Impossible 2 -- the movie, not the second presidential term.)
By way of further spectacle, on August 15 Powers will host a private event with a trained military interrogator waterboarding volunteer lawyers. Christopher Hitchens may have done the deed, but he didn't have nearly as much theater, or robotics, on his side.
Located smack-dab in the center of Coney, this project tackles a dark political issue with the zeal and terrifying hilarity reserved for conditions so abysmal that laughter is a natural, if not perverse, response. Such bawdy rebukes retain currency in the arts as artists often operate as jesters, dilettantes, and lunatics. In reaction to World War I, the Dada movement burst out of Zurich, dedicated to refuting and destroying all rationality. As Dadaist Marcel Janco reflected, "We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the 'tabula rasa.' At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order." Powers' slaphappy revolt feels comparable when he states, " Ridiculous is a better way to understand today's world than serious. I see you John Stewart. What's more obscene, calling waterboarding a thrill ride or not calling it torture?"
It's clear that the current administration is unconcerned not only with basic human rights but also with the weight of history: as Human Rights Watch has noted, waterboarding has "been prosecuted by US military courts as torture for over 100 years, since the Spanish-American War. After World War II, US military commissions prosecuted and severely punished enemy soldiers for having subjected American prisoners to waterboarding. In its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the State Department has consistently condemned other countries for waterboarding."
Powers sees Coney Island as a crucible for the country writ large: "It's is a place where everyone walks around half bored and half burnt and looking for distractions, so our job is to make something a little more distracting than any other, or maybe the most distracting of all. It's taking something people don't want to think about and deep frying it, sprinkling some sugar on it, and selling it."