Zane Austill

Zane Austill: An Introduction

BY annika suderburg

Films leave us with memories of both sounds and images. Whereas a traditional gallery of paintings provides viewers visual imagery to mull over, film and video floods its audience with visual and auditory stimulation. It is this powerful symbiotic relationship between imagery and sound that makes filmmaker Zane Austill’s decision to take a vow of silence so striking. 

Austill explores this relationship in his installation with an auditory film paired with notes and correspondence written during his vow of silence. Set atop a worn, paint-splattered table, a bulky television from before the era of flatscreens plays Austill’s video. The table itself is low to the ground, nearly obscuring the scattered notes and papers sitting underneath it. Notecards sit on top of the table while additional ephemera lines the wall behind the television and table. These cards are a memento of the method of communication Austill engaged in throughout his silence. Each gives unique insight into its own particular interaction: a greeting, request, explanation, or recounting of a story, among others. 

“Could I have bacon, egg, and cheese bagel”

“I’m sorry for the trouble and we were just getting to know each other, but I have taken a vow of silence”

“Made another mistake, for a joke, jumped out with my camera + said ‘What’d you say?’”

Silence at first appears to be an absence. It is the lack of sound and those who encountered Austill may have focused on the loss of auditory exchange. However, Austill’s installation reveals a different reality in silence. His written ephemera are a window into the different methods of communication he adopted. The physical act of writing takes time; this space in time forces the writer to think about their words. It is through Austill’s combination of auditory video and notes from his silence that invite viewers to think about his installation in terms of the dichotomy between sound and silence.

Zane Austill, 2021. Photographer Gillian Kwok.

At the beginning of the semester, Austill’s engagement to his high school girlfriend ended. This change in conjunction with his commitments to work and his other thesis led him to lean on unhealthy coping mechanisms. Ultimately, Austill decided he needed to find a different way to address his circumstances. He turned to silence.

The impact of the conscious choice of silence has been on Austill’s mind since his high school fiction teacher, Alan Rossi, introduced him to Zen Buddhism. Rossi used to describe how important his week-long silent retreats were. Zen has been Austill’s guide on this vow. He has also turned to Chödrön’s “Start Where You Are” as a source of inspiration for finding practices to incorporate into his daily routine. Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist, frames her teachings around fifty-nine Tibetan Buddhist maxims. She encourages readers to embrace their lives, their suffering, and themselves. 

Austill did not enter this contract lightly. Before he committed to the vow, he had several in-depth discussions with family and friends. Initially both reacted with more trepidation than support. At the beginning of his silence, Austill thought it would simply be a weekend exercise. But during his first silent meditation, he began to consider extending it. 

This vow of silence is purely auditory. Austill continues to engage with his community but only in ways that do not include his voice. In limiting the auditory, the visual element of the interactions also changes. The choice to physically write questions and answers on notecards takes the visual focus away from the individual and onto the piece of paper. This limitation on eye contact is disconcerting at first but ultimately focuses the two people purely on the exchange of words and ideas. This different focus clarifies what the individuals have to say and creates unification through a bond of understanding. 

Rather than use the vow as a moment of experimentation, Austill has embraced the vow  as a part of his process. His notes and ephemera are a direct result of the silence he has kept in the past months. Thus the vow is indivisible from his work. When experiencing Austill’s installation, it is important to keep in mind the different ways the vow has impacted his work, and how, in turn, the vow continues to influence and develop alongside his material.

Zane Austill, 2021. Photographer Stephen Apicella-Hitchcock.