Today my friends Sara Jane, April and I checked out the "Waterboard Thrill Ride" created by artist Steve Powers at Coney Island. A heavy-handed piece of interactive political art, "Waterboard Thrill Ride" takes the tortuous act of "waterboarding" and makes it into a sideshow attraction using animatronics, flashing lights and music. For the price of one dollar, you get to see one mannequin pour water into the mouth of another mannequin in an orange jumpsuit. Rock music blares from speakers, mixed in with the sound of someone choking. The prisoner mannequin convulses and spasms. And then it’s over.
It’s hard to know how to interpret the experience. The only explanatory signage is a detailed poster in English, French and Arabic that instructs you how to create your own waterboarding experience. No one was staffing the "ride" the two times I visited it today.
Built literally next door to the Sideshow by the Seashore, it fits right into the aesthetic of the amusement park, down to the Spongebob Squarepants character being tortured painted on the wall. When I was there, a handful of adults and kids were tentatively checking out the ride, waiting their turn to climb up the cinderblock steps to peek in the prisoner’s cell. (In the video, you can hear a kid trying to ask me what is in there while I was filming.)
I’m not sure it was an effective tool for public political discourse, as the New York Times stated. Most people just seemed confused by it. For me at least, the message is that our US dollars are going to support the US military using these barbarous tactics against prisoners in Guantanamo. And that I have some part in that culpability. YMMV ("your message may vary").