At the beginning of What We Don’t See, the new documentary by Austrian filmmaker Anna Katharina Wohlgenannt, the artist Christina Kubisch wanders through a weedy field beneath high-tension wires, wearing bulbous old-school headphones while gently waving a pair of what appear to be plastic tennis rackets, as if swatting slow-motion flies. Later, we see her meandering through city streets, lost in her own auditory world. Her headphones are modified to translate the electro-magnetic radiation that surrounds us, all the time, into sound. We hear what she hears, a constant, dense soundscape of hums, buzzes and tones that serves as a powerful metaphor for the hyper-connected technology-driven world we have created for ourselves. There are now more cellphones in circulation in the world than there are people. Our homes have wifi accessible air-conditioners, thermostats and smoke detectors, and telecommunications companies squabble over the last unused blocks of radio bandwidth. If all these anthropogenic transmissions and emissions were visible we would scarcely be able to see our own hands in front of our faces. What if all those signals flowing through the air are debilitating to our health and sanity?
A year ago, I drove to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. to pick up Wohlgenannt and her cameraperson, Judith Benedikt. I had been hired to record the sound on the final, United States portion of their shoot. We headed to Green Bank, West Virginia, a remote, forested bowl in what is one of the poorest states in the country. The town is near the heart of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone, where a near-complete radio blackout is enforced over thousands of square kilometers. Eliminating human-based radio signals avoids interfering with a giant telescope that has sometimes been used to monitor the intergalactic radio waves constantly beaming down on us from space, in hopes of finding signs of intelligent life. Perhaps paradoxically, many Americans who have diagnosed themselves with EHS have moved here because of the government prohibition on man-made radio waves. Diane Schou and Jennifer Wood, who appear in the film, told stories of discovering Green Bank as if it were a lifesaving oasis in the desert. They believed their self-diagnoses with near-religious fervor, and had made great sacrifices to move there. Although Schou lives in a quite comfortable, custom-modified house, she rarely sees her husband, who works halfway across the country in Iowa. Wood abandoned an architectural career and almost all the trappings of contemporary life (she owns a car) to live in a tiny wooden cabin without electricity or plumbing.
What We Don't See is a kind of documentary science-fiction, proposing an alternate future, one already inhabited by Schou and Wood, who both say they would like to warn us about the path that we are on.