Autogruta (detail), 2018.
The snapshot shows a sculpture of considerable size and obvious robustness. The clichés of the modern style in its maximalist version resonate in the organic quality of the object. The pleated profile carved from the solid rock follows a winding path, vainly trying to conceal the stony density it voluptuously exhibits. In the typewritten letter found in the same folder as the photo, a question seems to allude to that image: "Does it remind you of something?" At the top: Robt. The date: 1985.
The “Robt” to whom the missive is addressed is Robert Prager, a Californian whose principal claim to fame is his authorship of the Fistfucking Manifesto, probably one of the first informative texts ever written on this sexual practice. The photo was found in his personal files, now held at the ONE Archives Foundation in Los Angeles, where Toni Hervàs did extensive research. Of the many materials comprising those archives, this photo taken in the mid-1980s may be the key that will allow us to delve deeper into Autogruta [Self-Grotto], a project based on a survey of significant episodes, people and places that defined this contemporary paraphilia.
Although Prager claims in his writings that fist-fucking is an ancient practice, some authors argue that it only became popular barely one hundred years ago, pointing to the negligible iconographic presence of the fist prior to the dawn of the 20th century. In fact, in his text Fisting Art 101, Prager himself notes that it was not until the mid-1970s, with the rise of the gay liberation movement, that the first material evidence of fisting emerged, primarily in the form of activist and protest pamphlets and logos like those produced by TAIL (Total Ass Involvement League) or FFA (Final Faith of America). But let's get back to the photograph. Prior to the dissemination of those first graphic depictions, the fisting movement established and developed a specific imagery, a series of codes to help consolidate the then budding community of initiates. Toni Hervàs's task at the ONE Archives was to track down those symbolic and allegorical languages, capable of turning a seemingly banal sculpture like the one in the aforementioned photo into an impromptu monument to fisting: with his innocent question, the sender was drawing a comparison between the circuitous path followed by the stony bulk and the morphology of the human intestine. Here it is important to recall that the creation of codes was not merely essential to the survival and consolidation of this group; from the late 1960s, figurative meaning and cryptic language were also decisive in creating a common framework to facilitate identification and integration within this specialised gay community.
The title of Toni Hervàs's project contains a veiled reference to one of the first clubs that organised regular "fist-fucker" gatherings: The Catacombs. This San Francisco basement, which vetted potential visitors in a strict admissions process, was the clandestine meeting place for a community led by Robert Prager and Chuck Arnett, among others. For Prager, underground locales are not merely the logical sphere of action for fist-fucking, given the obvious need for discretion; in his mind, the cave is the retrospective, immersive space that provides the mystical and ritual atmosphere necessary to this practice. That desire to give the group's activities an aura of mythological transcendence was reflected in the iconography and imagery adopted by the fisting scene. Thus, fisting factions of the legendary gay motorcycle clubs ended up adopting names like The Satyrs or The Argonauts, and Broomhilda (Brunhilde), a character from German mythology, became the group's mascot, with a few modifications: in their personal version of the Valkyrie, the curves of her body resemble a clenched fist and the helmet is replaced by faecal matter.
Autogruta (installation view), 2018.
As is often the case of communities sidelined by the mainstream narrative, the paucity of material evidence and official versions has facilitated the proliferation of numerous complementary histories that build up a cosmogony around their members and activities. In Autogruta, various strategies are used to reveal this warping of the original story. Firstly and most obviously, the artist draws on malleable surfaces, initiating a game of concealment and overlap that precludes the possibility of a linear, unequivocal interpretation; colour and texture take centre stage, and the figures' contours are blurred to the point of total abstraction. Secondly, the treatment of the documentary material, presented here as photocopies, emphasises popular methods of information reproduction and dissemination. For Toni Hervàs, a photocopy is not just a reference to a particular historical context, for in this piece it appears to reclaim its agency. This technology undoubtedly played a vital role in the transformation of communities like the gay fisting subculture. Without photocopiers, they would have found it difficult to convey their graphic and text messages—in the form of fanzines, informative brochures or advertisements—to a select audience at a fairly low cost. When these two layers of reasoning are combined, the result is an ambiguous display device that allows Toni Hervàs to posit hypotheses without having to provide definitive conclusions. This communicative dysfunction exceeds the taxonomical description of the object of study and proposes an erratic, intuitive, sensory approach manoeuvre as the only viable option.
Although Autogruta is based on research within a limited field, the project avoids archival euphoria, instead exploring the performativity and materiality derived from the process of searching for and organising information. In the fabrication of this conveniently adulterated version of the facts, there is a statement about the transforming power of language and its ability to alter narratives and their hierarchies. The production of unpublished versions, based on suppositions and subjective interpretations, allows small perceptive cracks to appear and is the safe-conduct that lets us glimpse the wobbling of the spatiotemporal order.
Text published in Generación 2018 (Ed. Fundación Montemadrid, Madrid, 2018).