Coney Island Waterboarding Thrill Ride

steve powers

In the summer of 2008 conceptual artist Steve Powers presented a work that came to be known as the Coney Island waterboarding thrill ride. As originally conceived Powers saw the public watching volunteers undergoing actual waterboarding.

‘The Washington Post’ reported that Powers brought in Mike Ritz, a former US official experienced in administering waterboarding, for a one time demonstration of waterboarding on volunteers. This demonstration was not open to the general public, but rather for an invited audience. Powers himself was one of the volunteers.

As built, the thrill ride was a diorama, where viewers would mount stairs to a window where they would see a tableau of two models, one a captive, one a masked interrogator. The captive was wearing an orange uniform ‘non-compliant’ captives wear in the United States’ Guantanamo Bay detention camps, in Cuba, and was spread-eagled on a tilted table. Viewers inserted a dollar into the interrogator who would pour water onto a rag over the captive figures’ nose and throat, upon which the captive figure would start convulsing.

The piece was installed in a row of ordinary Coney Island freak shows and concessions. When installed the thrill ride triggered coverage and commentary around the world. Powers told ‘The New York Times’ his purpose in preparing the display was educational: ‘What’s more obscene, the official position that waterboarding is not torture, or our official position that it’s a thrill ride?’ ‘Robot waterboarding became a way of exploring the issue without doing any harm. 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.”

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