Going Waterboarding at Coney Island

Whee! Cotton Candy and Torture!

Squishy with delight that Coney Island in all its ratty splendor has survived another year, I scramble onto the N train for the trip from 14th Street to the beach, a ride that includes a view of Olafur Eliasson's waterfalls—so much nicer from this elevated track than they were from that East River boat—and culminates with a profile of the Ferris wheel looming over the sea as we pull into the Stillwell Avenue station.

My destination today is actually the ridiculously somber, somberly ridiculous installation "Waterboarding Thrill Ride" by artist Steve Powers, which I plan to visit immediately after a traditional pizza lunch at the wildly expensive, 104-year-old Totonno's on Neptune Avenue. (How come I only ever see white people in this place?)

In truth, though I'm vaguely curious, I can't say I'm exactly looking forward to this installation—despite my rabid lefty leanings, I usually can't stand political art. Most of the time, I side with the late studio head Sam Goldwyn who, confronted with preachy movie ideas, reputedly grumbled: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union."

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

Thrills and chills: Steve Powers's waterboarding ride

So, when I spy the cartoon of SpongeBob SquarePants being waterboarded on the side of the building that houses the Coney Island Museum and the legend "It Don't Gitmo Better," along with instructions to pay a dollar and see a demonstration of this odious technique, I want to hold my nose and run. Instead, I hand my Lanvin tote to K., who has accompanied me on this venture (in exchange for a free Totonno's lunch) and scramble clumsily up a few cinderblocks to peer through a grille of rusty prison bars.

Because I am the lamest person on earth, I cannot find the slot to shove the dollar bill into, but a passerby, twittering nervously at the cartoon of SpongeBob being humiliated, sticks it in for me, and here is what I see: two life-size animatronics, a kind of robot I am only familiar with from the Mormon Visitors' Center in Angels in America—one blindfolded, wearing an orange jumpsuit and writhing on the floor, the other hooded and pouring the water—and a soundtrack that sounds to me like it's saying, "I'm gonna die." The words "Don't worry, it's only a dream" are written on the back wall, there's an old sink in the corner of the cell, and the whole thing lasts maybe 15 seconds, if that.

Brief as it is, this spectacle is so profoundly upsetting, so disturbing, so revolting, that for a second you just want to jump back on the N train and get the hell out of there. But you don't, because as soon as you climb down from the cinderblocks, you find yourself in the exact same place where most Americans end up when they first find out about people being tortured in their name: Sure you're upset, but then you hear the pounding surf and see kids eating cotton candy, and two seconds later you find yourself thinking, "Yes, that was pretty awful, but I want a lemonade! I want to go hang out on the boardwalk! I want to see if Ruby's is still there!"

Ruby's is still there. This gigantic boardwalk saloon—with its long wooden bar and its set of fetid living-room furniture stuck in the middle of a vast room and a woman behind the bar who responds to my explanation that no, I don't want a drink, I'm just admiring the place by looking like she wants to spit at me—is open for another season. So is Lola Staar, the hipsterish boardwalk boutique where you can buy a Frida Kahlo shopping bag or a T-shirt featuring Topsy, the Coney Island elephant that was electrocuted in front of 1,500 people by Thomas Edison in 1903. K. kind of wants the T-shirt but is afraid that she will cry every time she puts it on, even though the pachyderm was murdered over a century ago.

We decide to walk down to the remains of Childs Restaurant, a hulking 1920s edifice decorated with crumbling friezes of sea monsters and ships that appears to be in the final stages of disintegration. (But no! A sign on the door announces that the interior now boasts a brand-new, hot-pink roller rink.) On our way back, we stop at Shoot the Freak, where a barker exhorts us to train a rifle loaded with paint at a poor creature scurrying around in a nutty proto-Viking outfit and a metal shield.

I am ashamed to admit that this horrible exhibit, with its links to Coney Island's sordid entertainments of the past, gives me a faint but unmistakable thrill. No geeks, no conjoined twins, no hootchie-kootchie girls—just one little guy in an empty lot dodging paint and bearing the weight of carny history on his spattered shoulders.

Time to go home! Deliciously sleepy from a day in the sun, I doze all the way back to Union Square, the sad fate of the waterboarded animatronic far from my mind. Until the next day, when I call up Steve Powers, its creator, to discuss his unlovely work.

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.

"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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