Artist Richard Wheeler likes to tackle difficult, complex problems. As accusations and insinuations fly from and about the Oval Office of wiretapping, spying microwaves and secret dossiers, Wheeler confronts the nuances of surveillance in his work. His practice is almost journalistic in its methodology, patiently unlocking publicly available information to examine, and at times critique, the apparatus of surveillance.
It’s a subject Wheeler knows a little about after serving nine years as an Army reservist. His path to becoming an artist was somewhat circuitous. After working as a women’s accessories designer in New York, he was galvanized by the events of Sept 11, 2001, to join the army. “I joined the Army because I was living in New York City on 9/11 and I saw the towers fall. I felt like my home had been attacked and that I had a duty as a citizen to try and defend it,” he explains.
A master’s degree in security studies at Georgetown University solidified Wheeler’s interest in political power. Likewise, a stint working in product management at geospatial software company Esri offered insight into mapping and data analytics. Wheeler took his diverse interests — design, bureaucracy, data — and applied to UCLA’s design media arts program for his MFA.
Since graduating in 2013, Wheeler has gone deeper down the rabbit hole of what he calls “gray information.” His work seeks out the middle ground between information that is not readily found in a simple Google search but also not hidden from public view. “I pry out info that isn’t secret but not [widely] released either. You have to look for it,” he says.
He’s applying these skills to the topic of surveillance, while also drawing from the artistic tradition of bricolage. Wheeler believes most of us understand surveillance only as it is depicted in movies and spy novels. He decided to dig deeper and discovered private corporations provide a wealth of training materials for government agencies and most publish their manuals online, if you know where to look for them.
As someone who spent time writing government contracts a decade ago, Wheeler has the experience to know where to look. The federal government, in an effort to increase transparency, launched a searchable, publicly accessible site a decade ago that tracks all government spending. “You can go down to an item-by-item level,” he says. “I go through it bit by bit and company by company.”
Wheeler gathers the disparate materials to create his own training manuals, writing his own data-mining programs to extract what he needs. It’s meticulous, exacting and time-consuming work. His artistic practice acts as a form of media archeology. “It’s not a one-to-one replica,” he says. Instead, he asks himself, “Can I approximate it enough to understand how it works?” Wheeler plans to take what he calls his “meta-manuals” and, as an Art Center fellow this summer, create an open-source surveillance course.
Despite the controversial subject matter, Wheeler hedges when it comes to condemning or championing potential governmental overreach. “The critique I’m trying to do is not to say surveillance is good or bad. Rather, it’s a thing that exists. We should look at it. What if we just look at what’s there?” he argues. In a way, Wheeler’s work is fundamentally about the process of looking. His meta-manuals are essentially explorations of how the state sees its citizens.
This isn’t the first time Wheeler has burrowed into information hidden in plain sight. Intrigued by the frequent presence of gun silencers in movies, despite the fact they’re illegal in most states, Wheeler began to immerse himself in the subcultures of gun owners on YouTube. Inspired by Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour montage of found footage from films that keeps time, Wheeler began to create video pieces that cull from hundreds of YouTube videos.
The result is an unnerving, nearly three-minute video that looks at gun suppressors, called The Sounds of Silencers. Wheeler followed up that video with two more: Walk This Way, which looks at how to maintain aim while walking and shooting, and La Nuit Americaine, which is focused on night-vision goggles.
The aesthetics of these pieces are highly militarized. The videos drawn from YouTube are clearly not intended for game hunters or the casual gun owner. The people in the videos are overwhelmingly white, middle-aged men who have (or approximate having) military or law enforcement experience.
Yet what is striking is how similar these videos are in tone and performance to any other technique video, whether it’s cooking, knitting or video game tutorials. While Wheeler concedes that in some ways all technique videos are similar, he argues, “The nature of fetishization in weapons videos is different.” As a knitter himself, he contends that knitting “is a single-use technology.” Weapons, on the other hand, have both military and civilian uses. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about killing,” he says.
For Wheeler, showing the humanity of the videos’ subjects is important. “I like to show these are just normal people. They have a sense of humor. They have idiosyncrasies,” says Wheeler, who is careful not to demonize the subcultures he depicts.
Maintaining relationships within the subcultures he studies is critical to his work. While the role of the artist has been traditionally positioned as an outsider, Wheeler is careful to avoid preemptively shutting down conversations: “For me to study the things I’m interested in, I have to talk to the people who do those things.”
There used to be a time when many artists also had military experience, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Sam Francis and Sol Lewitt. Yet today, with fewer enlisted personnel in the military, that seems to be more of an anomaly. For Wheeler, despite the declining number of military personnel, the increasing budgets for defense (nearly $4 trillion in 2015) makes it worthy of artistic inquiry. And while the bureaucratic drudgery required to do his work would probably drive most of us insane, it’s part of the appeal to Wheeler. “What can I say?” he laughs. “I enjoy grinding on a government expenditure database.”