Going Waterboarding at Coney Island

Whee! Cotton Candy and Torture!

So, Steve, are you a guy who likes political art? "Nah. Most of the time, political art makes for bad art, which makes for bad politics. So what's the point?" he replies, endearing himself to me. Powers says he's cool with any reaction to his work: "Disturbing is OK—passionate love is OK, too."

When he first saw the space, which belongs to Coney Island USA, it was untouched. "It looked like a torture chamber, and since waterboarding was so much in the national consciousness, the two things just went together." (If you don't catch the anguish at Coney Island, the entire tableau will be reassembled in late September at the Park Avenue Armory as part of Creative Times' series "Democracy in America," which the press release describes as "an activated space to both reflect on and perform democracy . . . "—which is just the kind of talk I hate, but never mind.)

Powers initially envisioned an installation consisting of a table and a bucket of water; he hoped that visitors planning for a day of frolicking in the sun would submit to a little suffering.

Thrills and chills: Steve Powers's waterboarding ride
David B. Smith/Creative Time

Thrills and chills: Steve Powers's waterboarding ride

"That was totally unworkable," he admits, so he came up with the robot idea, searched the Internet, where "you can find anything—it's all out there" (don't I know it), and went with the cheapest purveyor of custom-made dummies.

The artist clearly loves Coney as much as I do, and he's not worrying that impending real-estate development (which, with any luck, the current recession will forestall) is going to doom the place anytime soon. "As long as we have the Water Wheel, the beach, and Coney Island USA, what else do we need?" he asks me.

What about Shoot the Freak? We need Shoot the Freak, too, right? "Shoot the Freak is the high-water mark. In fact, when I was working on the installation, that's the one we had to beat."

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