Arts of torture?

Steve Powers

For those needing any practical reassurance that “waterboarding” is a form of torture, Christopher Hitchens provided something close to a final word on the matter, at least in the realm of public opinion (and persuasion), when he subjected himself to it for the benefit of Vanity Fair’s readers.

One is reminded of the Hitch’s stunt by a short piece from last Wednesday’s New York Times, which used it to introduce artist Steve Powers’ The Waterboarding Thrill Ride, an “animatronic diorama,” installed out on Coney Island, “that depicts a prisoner being waterboarded.” Whatever you may think of the necessity, or originality, or political probity of Powers’ diorama, which is being presented by Creative Time, the final sentences of the Times‘ piece describes how Powers’ project will take on a bizarre because redundant dimension when,

In mid-August Mr. Powers and several lawyers will be waterboarded by a trained professional in a secret location in Coney Island as a private performance. Documentation on the performance will be at

I think one needs to needs to ask here just what such a performance can hope to achieve, either for politics or for art. If Hitchens’ waterboarding was an act undertaken to provide an otherwise reliable public account of it as torture, does not Powers’ “private performance” come off sounding more like an exercise in voyeuristic sadomasochism (which certainly has its own political dimension, just not the one Powers and Creative Time are after)?

4 thoughts on “Arts of torture?”

  1. Waterboarding in itself is not improper content for art. The appearance of the ski mask and images of torture in contemporary art abound – Serra’s depiction of Abu Graib may be only the most well known. As it is expressed in art in figurative terms, the violence of war has shifted from rifles and bombs to torture – it’s important to take note of this.

    Further, apart from the artworld acceptance of people like Bob Flanagan or Stelarc, S&M performance can be regarded as an art form within its own community, and arguably one of the finer moments of such performances is a profound sense of intimacy drawn from the limit of ethics and the body – it is not without it’s own poetry.

    For me, then, this is more specifically about how Steve Powers’ waterboarding performance appears in the end. For example, when Niki de St. Phalle first performed her Shooting paintings in 1961, they were immediately legible in the context of a gendered politics of the body and the Vietnam War. Yet Chris Burden’s 1971 Shoot has been received as distant from such a political reference. The gun, as content, was intended differently in each case.

    What we have here is (yet another) sign-painting street artist from Deitch. Subjecting his own body and that of others to the performed act of waterboarding, Powers is presumably invested in the deployment of media images as generated by an art context – in this case, as an amusement park. Further, to submit to this as a group is immediately liable to the transformative effects of a baptism in the river – torture born again into art. There is something to be provided by an art historical context, and I find that it is more from this point that I want to say “I think one needs to ask here just what such a performance can hope to achieve, either for politics or for art.”

  2. Are we witnessing the birth of waterboard chic? Can it be marketed as an XXX-treme sport, with designer face masks, bindings and boards? Might there be a dress code, with teams and uniforms? What would the suspected terrorist wear? or the sartorially correct interrogator? Relevant to this, a T-shirt for sale on a “humorous” conservative website has recently engendered intensely partisan commentary on The Atlantic blog. Humor, not unexpectedly, retains a red state/blue state dichotomy.

    While Steve Powers probably resides somewhere on the (libertarian) left, he also wants to instigate cascades of outrage. Creative Time, presenter of The Waterboarding Thrill Ride, would like to spin it as fostering a “dialogue about the implications of waterboarding”. But Jonathan’s question is a good one: does the piece merely trivialize this debate, piggybacking on a hot button topic for a free joy ride, for the expected jolt of controversy? Or will public consciousness somehow be engaged and elevated? It’s the old yardstick applied to obscenity cases: that of redeeming social significance. Titillation without redemption is a no-no.

    Art does not have to be polite. It can be outrageous and irreverent. And coming from the Deitch stable, the imperative of naughty spectacle all the time is essentially a given. I generally appreciate Steve Powers’ work, its post graffiti swagger. He is a prime practitioner of confrontational, wryly subversive agitprop. Subtlety is never his strong suit. And the venue itself, an amusement park, encourages broad strokes. To place a waterboarding “ride” amidst Coney Island’s usual attractions merges the vernacular of street signage and performance, of side shows by the sea, to a “message”. But can this message rise above the banal? Yes, waterboarding is “bad”. Yes, media images of torture are inevitably flattened, robbed of moral imperative, becoming grist for the infotainment mill. But isn’t this something we already know? Been there, done that, what else can you tell me.

    I also question the private waterboarding session. Catherine interestingly cites its group aspect (with lawyers! are they planning to litigate afterwards?) as suggestive of certain denominational rites, like baptism. She also references other performance artists who have engaged in mortifications of the flesh. But Bob Flanagan, Ron Athey, Stelarc and Chris Burden appeal to something personal, an internal dialogue with the limits of their bodies, with the transcendence of pain and the transformation of the spirit in extremis. Somehow I don’t get the same charge of mind/body/spirit from Steve Powers’ prospective performance. Appended to his carny sideshow attraction (which admittedly I have not yet seen), it feels more like Jackass than Bresson.

  3. Addendum:

    It seems Warhol’s famous dictum, that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, has devolved into “everyone can be waterboarded for five seconds” — particularly if you’re an attorney-at-law. New York Magazine reports that Steve Powers is assembling his own coalition of the willing, 50 lawyers who will submit to a private waterboarding session. The potential logistics are risible. One waterboard and a queue of counselors impatiently checking their watches (remember, these guys generally bill by the hour). Or perhaps a group dousing, with multiple boards. Interested attorneys can email

    Is Mr. Powers inspired by a previous instance of recreational waterboarding, organized by a public access talk show outside a Tampa strip club? Their tagline: “Decide for yourself what waterboarding is all about!!!”

  4. The private “performance” has taken place, and Andrew Hultkrans of was invited, among a reported thirty observers (none from AWS, to my knowledge), to watch Mr. Powers and three attorneys be ceremonially asphyxiated in a “small, squalid room” off a back alley.

    Apparently, Catholic rituals were invoked (water rites surrounding the Feast of the Assumption) and trade secrets of the professional torturer revealed (the best angle to be used in prolonging the procedure). Mr. Hultkrans described the process as “both officious and tawdry”, and indicated he felt “a mixture of morbid fascination and generalized revulsion”. He decided to pass on the after party.

Leave a Reply