Robots simulate torture in controversial exhibit

Coney Island's Cyclone roller coaster

Coney Island's Cyclone roller coaster

An art installation in Coney Island that uses robots to simulate waterboarding, a torturous interrogation tactic that's been used on detainees at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention center, is creating a national stir as it raises public awareness about the controversial practice.

The so-called Waterboard Thrill Ride -- created by New York-based artist Steve Powers -- is not the typical carnival ride or attraction you would expect to find near the famous boardwalk of the iconic Brooklyn community.

Though it's mere steps way from attractions like Nathan's hot-dog stand and the Cyclone roller coaster, the exhibit is less to provide amusement than to raise awareness of waterboarding, the practice of pouring water onto the face of an immobilized person so that the sensation of drowning will encourage them to talk to interrogators.

If you walked by the exhibit on West 12th Street just off the boardwalk, you wouldn't notice anything special about the storefront that houses it -- it could be any one of Coney Island's carnival attractions.

It also might go unnoticed as it's in the shadow of the famous Coney Island Circus Sideshow, which showcases sword swallowing, fire-eating and similar extreme feats, which is next door.

But a mural on the wall outside the Waterboard Thrill Ride is a harbinger of what's inside, behind a window framed by prison bars. It shows a character from the U.S. SpongeBob SquarePants animated television show, Squidward, using a watering can to pour water on a strapped-down SpongeBob himself. Through a cartoon dialogue bubble, SpongeBob emotes that "It don't gitmo better."

To see the exhibit, you walk up a few stairs to a viewing platform. Peering through the bars, you can see two robots -- one clothed in a dark-hued hooded-sweatshirt, holding a watering can, and the other strapped down and blindfolded wearing an orange jump suit.

After putting a dollar in the payment slot, music plays while the hoodie-clad robot pours water from the watering can onto the mouth of the other, which bucks and thrashes slightly. The "ride" lasts about 15 seconds and -- in the simulation I saw -- is set to the theme song from the U.S. children's show Sesame Street, the lyrics of which are: "Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away."

The theme song is perhaps an homage to the mural on the wall of the cell in which the waterboarding takes place, which features a seascape with the words "Don't worry it's only a dream" painted across the robin's-egg blue sky.

The robots in the exhibit are crude and would not likely be mistaken for actual human beings -- but that's exactly the point, said Powers, who used the "most budget animatronics" he could find.

"It was important to me not to make it a quasi-realistic experience to make it an effective Coney Island attraction," he said. "We wanted to make it as artificial as possible."

Powers declined to name the company from which he purchased the robots, willing only to say that he purchased them online because "they weren't very happy with what I was doing."

The artist said he did not plan on making any drastic political statement with the Waterboard Thrill Ride-- his main objective was to learn more about waterboarding himself, though he knew in doing so he would likely raise public awareness of the issue.

"I wasn't going for a specific reaction per se," he said. "The whole purpose of the project was to investigate and try to figure it out and better understand what it meant -- what waterboarding meant just for me."

Despite this apparently modest intent, the Waterboard Thrill Ride understandably has garnered a lot of attention -- both from people who've visited the exhibit and the national media, which have covered the exhibit extensively.

On a muggy Thursday in August, curiosity seekers, members of the press and locals who'd heard about the installation gathered outside it soon after the storefront opened in the early afternoon. Those I spoke with shared mixed reactions to the exhibit. But love it or hate it, like the intention of the waterboarding practice itself, the exhibit got them talking.

Nicole Angerhauser, a 19-year-old local resident who had read about the exhibit in the newspaper, said she felt ripped off as she walked down the stairs from the viewing platform.

"Is that it? That was a waste of my money," she said. "I want the last 30 seconds of my life back."

However, Amaris Sicklick, a 15-year-old resident from upstate New York who was visiting Coney Island with her father, thought the installation -- which she called " a pretty gruesome thing to put on display for people" -- achieved a didactic effect.

"It teaches people what really goes on," she said, adding that it was important for people to be aware of the issue.

I found the Waterboard Thrill Ride to be amusing and at the same time, chilling. Because the robots looked so unlike real people, and since their movements were accompanied by a whimsical song from my childhood, the initial experience made me smile.

But after I viewed it several times, the thrashing of the robot simulating the victim seemed a little too real, and I could imagine how it might feel to undergo such torture.

Powers knows first hand what waterboarding feels like. True to his intention to learn more about it, he actually underwent the torture as part of a live exhibition related to the Waterboard Thrill Ride in Coney Island.

Powers called the experience "very painful" but said that it taught him as much as he needed to know about the practice, and "it's not all good news."

He said he was not interested in politicizing, but that in his opinion, having experienced waterboarding first hand, it seems like "a really inadequate form of interrogation." "Under that kind of duress, people would say anything," Powers said.

The Waterboard Thrill Ride will be in its current Coney Island home until Sept. 15, after which it will move to the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan as part of Creative Time's Democracy in America exhibit.

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