In N.Y., Waterboarding as Dark Art

Some people who viewed the installation at Coney Island were clearly repulsed. A few laughed. "It's an investigation," artist Steve Powers said.
Some people who viewed the installation at Coney Island were clearly repulsed. A few laughed. "It's an investigation," artist Steve Powers said. (By Robin Shulman -- The Washington Post)
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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

NEW YORK -- Slip a dollar into a slot in the "Waterboard Thrill Ride," and watch through bars as a man in a hooded sweatshirt pours water into the nose and mouth of another man in an orange jumpsuit convulsing against his restraints.

It looks like a scene from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But this is Coney Island, and the two men are motorized mannequins whose interaction takes place alongside freak shows and funnel cakes.

The scene is the creation of Steve Powers, who has participated in the Venice Biennale, won a Fulbright grant and published art books, but whose roots are in the graffiti art of the streets.

"I wanted to make the perfect Coney Island experience. Something that captivates, that's an immediate visceral reaction and that lingers in the memory," he said, speaking in front of his booth, which features an image of SpongeBob SquarePants saying, "It don't Gitmo better!"

"There's no better place than an amusement park to confront horror and things we're fearful of," he said later. "It's an investigation."

The investigation progressed Friday, when Powers and several lawyers subjected themselves to waterboarding at the hands of an experienced interrogator who was wearing a ski mask and combat boots.

In a private room at Coney Island, with an audience of artists, journalists, friends and family, former Army interrogator Mike Ritz roughly stuffed a towel into his victims' mouths, one by one, and poured water until they struggled.

One woman looked fragile and tiny, her feet kicking helplessly in platform shoes as water filled her eyes and nose.

"It was a terrifying experience," said Karin Kunstler Goldman, 64, an assistant New York state attorney general. "The fact that it took place near roller coasters and cotton candy sends an important message: We here can engage in frivolity and fun at a time when in our name this is happening to people somewhere else."

Ritz, who was hired to administer the technique, said: "The idea behind this is the person is sucking in a little bit of water and a lot of air so they feel like they're drowning. The real power of the interrogator is the fear of the unknown."

"It's sensationalist, right?" Ritz said. "But I think if you're for or against this technique, the conversation about this needs to start. We need to recognize what it truly is -- which is torture."

Powers doesn't express opinions either way and insists his art is not political. "We are reaching a group of people that don't know about the subject," he said.

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