Savannah Bustillo, “The History of Language”

Savannah Bustillo
Minneapolis, Minnesota

The History of Language
Cue cards, two handmade books screen printed on a single recycled 2002 Jeep Cherokee and Comanche car repair manual, Spanish tongue twister to teach the /rr/ sound.
Installation, 6 1″/2 x 9 1/2″

Artist Statement

Erre con erre cigarro
Erre con erre barril
Erre con erre
Suenan las ruedas
Del ferrocarril.

R with r cigar
R with r barrel
R with r
Sound the wheels
Of the railway.

This installation of books and cue cards is a game. It is an experiment, a grammar lesson.

Guests are invited by the cue cards and covers of the two books, placed side by side, to do a reading out loud. One book prompts the viewer with a set of directions in English, and the other in Spanish, with the promise that if a guest chooses to read the Spanish tongue-twister, or trabalenguas, out loud, they can then tear out and keep a page from the other book. This trabalenguas is one any Spanish-speaker will recognize – a classic that is recited to teach the speaker how to create the /rr/ or ‘trilled R’ in Spanish. It is a teaching guide; the more often one repeats the trabalenguas, the stronger the /rr/ will become as your tongue slowly adjusts to the correct placement in the mouth.

Yet, guests of course have a choice. If they choose to engage with the piece, their knowledge and comfortability with either English or Spanish will allow them to understand one of the two covers with instructions. When they then open that book, they will find the text block in the other language. The English covered book has the text block in Spanish and the Spanish covered book in English. Guests then will be confronted with the choice to try reading in the language in which they perhaps have less experience, trying to pronounce this trabalenguas, and then getting to remove a page from the other book. Over time, the choices audiences make will be displayed in what pages remain of the two books, themselves sisters. Both are created from a single recycled car repair manual, the English covered Spanish text block book comprised of the first half of the manual, and the Spanish covered English text block book comprised of the second half. Not only is this installation an experiment, but a reminder, via car manual, that the history of language cannot be divorced from the physical material of the world, nor the mechanical ways we try to train our mouths to accommodate different linguistic paradigms.

This piece is a microcosm—a small study in how languages, words, pronunciations, and practice are shaped and continue to be shaped by living people engaging with them. It is a demonstration of the way language lives and breathes between us all. It is also forged around the innate performativity of language, the privileges that surround us and grant some of us accessibility to certain ways of speaking and understanding, and also a longitudinal study of the way the repeated
use or disuse of languages shapes our histories.