Powers Trip

Andrew Hultkrans on Steve Powers's waterboarding performance

New York

Left: Karin Kunstler-Goldman being waterboarded at a performance in conjunction with Steve Powers's Waterboard Thrill Ride, 2008. Right: Artist Steve Powers at the performance. (All photos: Sam Horine.)

I suppose it says something about where we’re at as a nation when the prospect of witnessing a live torture act in a decrepit amusement park seems like a reasonable—attractive, even—way to kick off the weekend. Or maybe it just says something about me. After all, Friday nights can be such a disappointment. But there I was, on the F train, traveling beyond Avenue X to the dark side (in this case, Coney Island) to watch artist Steve Powers and a trio of lawyers get waterboarded by a former army interrogator. (When my girlfriend canceled a drink date with a coworker to join me, her colleague quipped, “You two have so much fun together.”) As we got off the train, the boardwalk was shrouded by steel-gray thunderclouds, which soon gave way to a driving rainstorm, a coincidence so apposite I could have sworn that Creative Time, the producers of the night’s “performance,” paid for it. As I wrestled with my malfunctioning umbrella, the organization’s Nick Weist greeted us in a back alley and ushered us into a small, squalid room. Having watched the Christopher Hitchens waterboarding video on Vanity Fair’s website repeatedly—by the last few times, I admit, just to watch the fat bastard suffer—I had a sense of what to expect, so I was surprised to feel a mixture of morbid fascination and generalized revulsion.

The pretext for this odd demonstration was Powers’s installation Waterboard Thrill Ride, a pair of animatronic robots (interrogator and detainee) arrayed in an old photo studio around the corner, who do the dunk-and-shudder for a dollar a pop. Defending the provocative artwork, which was funded by Creative Time as part of “Democracy in America: The National Campaign,” its multi-artist, nationwide series of exhibitions and events culminating this September at the Park Avenue Armory, Powers has said, “What’s more obscene, the official position that waterboarding is not torture or our official position that it’s a thrill ride?” Now, let’s be clear, anyone who maintains that repeated, ritualized suffocation isn’t torture is a) not being serious, b) is an authoritarian sadist, or c) is covering his ass for war-crime liability. Powers has generated a lot of gawking press with his rather unsubtle piece, but at least he’s willing to eat from the pot he’s stirring, which is more than one can say for Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo, and Alberto Gonzales.

Inside the room, decorated with small placards of female Disney characters, a sad-looking plant, Coke machines, and a jukebox, two paramedics stood by a gurney behind the crowd of thirty or so spectators (many of them journalists). Powers introduced himself and the event by saying that he didn’t intend the Thrill Ride to be political art, but “more like life drawing,” a representational act that “couldn’t be pushed to the right or the left.” He praised Coney Island, where he has lived and worked for years, as a “good place to confront horror.” He noted that today was the Feast of the Assumption (when Mary ascends into heaven) and that Catholics worldwide celebrate it with water rites. His mother, he said, reminded him of this, thinking it was an appropriate day for the performance, though she wanted him to make clear that it wasn’t her idea. Powers then introduced the professional interrogator, Mike Ritz, clad in black fatigues and combat boots, who, along with an identically dressed assistant, would soon be pulling generic but terrifying black ski masks over their heads and pouring red gas cans full of water onto people’s faces. Powers noted that he and the victims would be cuffed but not bound, as it was illegal to bind people, even though it’s legal to waterboard them.

David Dames being waterboarded at a performance in conjunction with Steve Powers's Waterboard Thrill Ride.

The participants left the room for a minute, then burst through the door; Powers, now hooded, was roughly guided to the inclined waterboarding table. (As Ritz explained afterward, the head is laid below the heart so that less water gets into the lungs, allowing the interrogators to prolong the procedure.) Ritz then stuffed a large black rag into Powers’s mouth, held the artist’s nose with one hand, and poured a steady flow of water onto the rag like a frat boy pours a pitcher of beer. After about eight seconds, Powers began to twitch and jerk on the table, and Ritz quickly removed the rag. Dazed and flushed, the artist was led out of the room. Without fanfare or dawdling, though with some mutual mask adjustment, the interrogators repeated the procedure on three lawyers who had volunteered for the experience—a man and woman in their sixties and a younger man with a T-shirt reading PRODUCT OF A ROGUE NATION. The woman, an assistant state attorney general, seemed to last the longest. The process was both officious and tawdry.

Powers reentered the room and, after a beat, said, “That sucked!” Ritz, revealing a T-shirt reading I YELL BECAUSE I CARE, spoke briefly about his trade. Calling waterboarding “torture” and an “ineffective technique,” he noted that interrogators look keenly at body language, like poker players scan for “tells,” and waterboarding victims not only blurt whatever comes to mind to make it stop but also become so physically agitated that they’re emotionally illegible. He reminded us that this was a pale approximation of a real waterboarding interrogation, which is “relentless,” and that tonight’s victims didn’t go through the “truck-by-truck process” real detainees endured. He repeatedly emphasized that the US military does not practice waterboarding—this was the province of “other government agencies”—and concluded by invoking the Stanford prison experiment, in which psychology grad students played prisoners and guards with Lord of the Flies results, saying that real-life wartime interrogations can descend very quickly into wanton sadism and gleeful persecution.

With this in mind, the audience was invited to the Freak Bar next door, for beer and bonhomie. Really? My companion and I decided to brave the rain instead.