A Castle in Ruins. Decoding the Empire

Daniel G. Andújar

The Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (the Monastery of El Escorial), as you will know, is a large building complex (a palace, the monastery itself, a museum and a library) set in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a town 45km northwest of Madrid, in the Region of Madrid (Spain). The name El Escorial owes its name to the ancient slag (“escoria” in Spanish) deposits left by an ironworks in a village near the place where this group of buildings was erected -upon the orders of king Philip II– to commemorate Spain’s victory in the battle of St Quentin on the 10th of August, 1557, against the troops of King Henry II of France. Furthermore, it would serve as a burial place for the remains of Philip II’s parents, Emperor Charles I and Isabella of Portugal, as well as his own and those of his descendants. The building’s floor plan and its towers are reminiscent of the shape of a grill, which has led to the claim that it was built in this way in order to pay homage to St Lawrence, who was martyred in Rome by being grilled on a gridiron, and whose saint’s day is celebrated on the 10th of August, the day of the Battle of St Quentin; hence the name of the building complex, San Lorenzo, and the town which emerged around it. Prestige and power were built on slag, commemorating victory in battle and honouring a martyred saint. In addition, St Lawrence had been one of the deacons of Rome, in charge of the administration of Church goods. For this duty, he is regarded as one of the first archivists and treasurers of the Church and was made the patron saint of librarians. All of this gives rise to a series of linked metaphors which would inspire any self-respecting artist.
One of the most outstanding elements of the building complex is the impressive investment in, and special attention paid to, the library. Philip II gifted his valuable codices to it, and, to increase its value, he ordered the acquisition of the most important libraries and works, regardless of where they were. It was planned by the architect Juan de Herrera, who was also in charge of designing the room’s bookshelves. The impressive frescoes on the ceiling’s vault emulate the paintings by Ghirlandaio in the Vatican Library. It boasts a collection of more than 40,000 volumes of extraordinary value, and is set in an area 54 metres long, 9 metres wide and 10 metres high, with a marble floor and bookshelves made out of fine, exquisitely carved wood. Without a doubt, Philip II, at the time the most powerful monarch on earth, wanted to emulate the Library of Alexandria, amassing here all the knowledge of an ever-expanding world in a constant state of flux, by constantly increasing the library’s size and complexity. For Philip II, money was no object, and, in addition to purchasing a great many private libraries and books offered by merchants, he made direct commissions to find books in cities such as Antwerp, Cologne and Nuremberg. His ambassadors in Paris, Rome and Venice received instructions to buy beautiful books and manuscripts the king longed to possess. In this way, El Escorial began to receive shipments of books and documents, as well as those which were willed to the king by courtiers, and those produced by copyists. Philip II envisioned his huge stone coffer so that it would contain a replica of the whole, vast world, in the hope that it would become the largest building in Europe, a gigantic container with granite walls assembled without any sort of decoration, a metaphor of Power with a capital P.
This colossal building would be joined by the Archivo General de Simancas (General Archive of Simancas), which was established as a royal archive by Philip II. Later, in 1567, Philip II commissioned Jerónimo Zurita y Castro to compile the state documents of Aragon and Italy and combine them with those of Castile in the Castle of Simancas, creating one of the then largest archives, and, undoubtedly, in what was one of the most outstanding logistical and technical enterprises of that time. It boasted one of the first sets of archive regulations, and would end up becoming a leading historical archive (second only to the Secret Vatican Archive), known for the quality and quantity of documents it holds (between 50 and 60 million). It is essential for anyone who wishes to understand some crucial parts of history between the 15th and 19th centuries. The El Escorial building complex and the Simancas Archive would ultimately give rise to a complex structure devised to govern the largest political system that has ever existed. Additionally, in order to get such a huge mechanism moving, it was necessary to create a modern bureaucratic framework which could oversee the entire process. All this sounds utterly contemporary, if we think about software, tools, logistics, infrastructures, interfaces, etc.
The question we should ask ourselves is, was Philip II aware at the time that information is power, and that, further, controlling information would help him maintain power, for himself and his heirs? Some of his biographical details, along with the views of many detractors of the imperial monarch raised questions concerning the king’s ability. There is much anecdotal evidence regarding the king’s extravagances, giving rise to these doubts: for example, the books on his building’s shelves are arranged in such a way that the spines face inwards and the corner pieces outwards, which is extremely unusual. It seems that Philip II ordered the corner pieces to be gilded, so that they would match the gold leaf on the vault. Beyond mere anecdotal value, this also meant that the information on the book spines was concealed, in what was a clear act of manipulation. Additionally, he had the empty shelves covered with painted canvas showing the books he was awaiting or did not yet possess, until the real volumes filled the space. This in itself is indicative of some level of obsessive behaviour. He received a humanist education but never quite became a humanist himself. However, there is no doubt that Philip II “the Prudent” was an intelligent man, who was educated to some degree, as well as being a confirmed bibliophile, fond of music, art, collecting, and, above all, architecture. With his gift for planning and his political vision, his personality would define European history of the second half of the 16th century. Philip II created a veritable information network, whereby he communicated on an almost daily basis with his ambassadors, viceroys and officials scattered throughout the empire. He used to employ a messenger system which took less than three days to reach any part of the Iberian Peninsula, and around eight days to reach the Netherlands. This does not seem like the work of a madman, however obsessive he may have appeared to be.

This emperor, who led global exploration and colonial expansion over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, introduced changes in government practices and hierarchies, breaking away from mediaeval traditions, and lending an innovative air to the Crown, at the same time as he laid the foundations for modern public administrations. So it seems he knew a few things. However, as tends to happen with those who are invested with such vast levels of power, the omnipotent monarch, in his extreme prudence and bureaucratic zeal, did not realise that -at that precise moment-, as he took refuge in the microcosm of his control tower, an emerging force was already taking shape, and would mutate to such an extent that it shook the foundations of the entire empire.
In a mostly illiterate society, where knowledge was limited to the information found on a handful of manuscripts, zealously guarded in monasteries and centres of power, the advent of the printing press had an enormous impact. To use more contemporary terms, it opened a back door to the System, rendering it vulnerable to hackers who would eventually transform it on every level. Through a virus as simple as Knowledge, access to information began to be available to more people, although they were still a minority. This virus continued to spread, endlessly mutating and infecting the System. The heavy machinery of prestige and power would gradually waste away, until the entire sophisticated apparatus became nothing more than a formal symbol, an allegory, the monument (World Heritage) we know today. A heavy granite sarcophagus whose size astounds visitors and which some guides interpret freely.
In the same way that there is now particular concern for politicians’ lack of understanding of our new technological reality, which should determine the development of their political actions, Philip II was intent more on accumulating and controlling, than on attempting to fathom, and adapt to, the changes which his Empire was experiencing. As Harold Pinter said in his acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “the majority of politicians are interested not in truth, but in power and in the maintenance of that power”, an observation which is retrospectively relevant. The dream of all politicians has been to ensure that it is they, rather than their citizens, who are in control of information. Ultimately, this is the key element which must be attacked in any hierarchical system.
The technological developments which have taken place through history have had a direct influence on governmental systems. And speaking, as we are, about libraries, bookshops, archives and books, we must admit that the main way of gathering information, storing and distributing content — which became possible thanks to the advent of the printing press — played an essential part in the spreading of the most influential ideas on contemporary politics. The movable type press made it easier and faster to print multiple copies of a same work, as well as making it easier to quickly circulate information and opinions in small communities, far away from the centres of power. The political events of the time, such as the Siege of Mayence, in 1462, caused Gutenberg’s students to disperse all over central Europe, spreading the word about the new printing technique, with the subsequent distribution of information. It was only a short time before all the main central European towns boasted their own printing works, producing mostly classics, as well as more recent contributions to the political ideas and thinking of the time. The same technology which made it possible to modernise administration and government systems also allowed some sectors of society to adopt mechanisms which would enable them to access information. During the Renaissance, it was the crucial medium for humanist ideas to swiftly spread through Europe. However, it would take several more centuries before we could observe the launch of some genuine processes for the socialisation of information.
As the price of books and other publications fell drastically, the transmission and communication of information intensified, and, more importantly, from that moment onwards, knowledge gradually became available to a greater number of people, giving rise to an increase in the relationships between readers and scholars from a great many countries. The 19th century saw the introduction of printing systems which are still in place today, and which made it possible to produce print runs at a very low cost. The subsequent emergence of newspapers, magazines and other publications not only had the effect of spreading culture, but also of contributing to the social and civil education of people and to the progress of technology, science and ideas. However, it was not long before those mass communication media (the press and, later on, television and radio) became a powerful tool for social control by a minority elite, by disconnecting citizens from active participation in debates and decision-making (at least we will always have the vote). “Newspapers, as everyone knows, do not tell it like it is, nor like they think it is, but they way they want it to be”.


Fortunately, journalism, like other professions, is undergoing a significant transformation in its traditional practices, which tends to deactivate media corporations’ control over information. This is what we call the end of the press, although not of journalism, as some people presume. According to Juan Varela, “citizens have appropriated information through social media. The crisis in the credibility of the traditional press, the questioning of objectivity and the emergence of digital tools open to all, have rendered journalism a conversation from which the most active citizens do not want to be absent”. It is not surprising to find that recent statistics state that Spaniards rate the media to be the third most corrupt sector (44%), after political parties (63%) and private corporations (54%). One would have expected the media to be the guardian of democracy, but this stance is clearly not feasible. We are the ones who must become occasional mediators, by subjectively filtering the information which makes up our most immediate reality, and we do this in an automatic, almost professional, way: without realising it, we distill reality to suit our taste.
Concepts such as that of the information society are already part of day-to-day language. The influence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the consequences of globalisation have had an undeniable effect, to the extent that they are transforming old ways of thinking and functioning. The development of so-called new technologies enables us to formulate things in a different way, contributing new resources to the process and production systems of a wide range of cultural services and goods, as well as to the forms of distribution and transmission of information.
A new economic, social and technological system is being adopted and developed. It is defined by the value assigned to the handling of huge amounts of information as a basic ingredient for the construction of knowledge. Here lies one of the new unknown factors we are facing. In this last decade, the Internet and other diffusion channels have begun to stand out as infrastructures which are paving the way to the information society, as they have provided a conduit for communication and the exchange of data which is available to large sectors of society. The Internet, and especially some of the services it provides, such as the World Wide Web, has become a highly effective tool for the circulation of information, offering access to millions of pages, featuring multimedia and text contents. It has given back to citizens the chance to participate in distributed networks which are not so susceptible to political control, and, in a way, by using different technologies it combines deliberative and participative aspects which would appear to me incompatible with previous models. Encouraging conversation, hypertextuality, multipresence, the exchange of opinions, participative communication, shared archives, content syndication etc. are all key elements in the development of new strategies for cultural, political and social communication. At the same time, however, it provides a new chance to guide, manipulate, interpret, filter, condition, orientate, measure, prioritise, arrange hierarchically, etc. i.e. everything that we try to combat, unsuccessfully; it seems as if there is too much power, even for oneself, or perhaps not.
We are entering a new era which is defined by the collaboration between different collectives working in communities with a high capacity for organisation and communication, exploring, reflecting and investing energy to movements and processes such as the access to open source software and free access to information, the transformation of the media, the diluting of authorship and copyright conflicts, social software, etc. ICTs use time and space in a very different way from traditional media, which is inevitably modifying our perception of some fundamental issues. There is a lot of talk of immediacy, but we should also be aware of the constant reinterpretation of information, as well as its permanent nature. We can generate and consume content faster than ever, but we also modify and recover them with equal speed; this archive is defined by constant production and revision, with unprecedented accessibility levels. The great containers of knowledge, the managers of information, must be able to transform their structures. The concept of a public library, which has been loyal to the principles which have justified its existence since first appearing in the 19th century, must adapt its functions to the new circumstances. In this new reality, the public library, which has always used information as its raw material, must transform itself into an institution with huge potential, by focusing on access to information, to permanent training and to cultural sectors in a new landscape of digital contents and fast and affordable communications networks. If it wants to survive, it must market itself as a pathway to the information society, as well as a balancing element, in order to prevent technological advancements from aggravating the potential social exclusion of some collectives. Whatever happens, it must adapt to the new circumstances, and gradually leave behind the idea of the library as a place, as a physical reality contained within its walls, and become a logical entity and service centre. The digital library is Utopian in the etymological sense of the word, as it is not possible to place it within precise spatial coordinates. We are no longer interested in the guardians or accumulators of information, but in those who can help us transform this information into efficient knowledge, to contribute to the full development of our lives.
All of these recently-launched processes have ended by blowing up the walls of the convent, or the monastery in this case, that old guardian of the precious treasure that is knowledge. The emperor’s library has been left completely exposed to the hoi polloi; granite has become transparent, allowing light to be shed on its interior. The huge walls of the Castle of Simancas, which houses the General Archive, have also fallen, revealing all that was concealed. The collapse of these defences has led to the overflowing of the moat which surrounded them, and which used to protect them from malicious attacks. The overflowing waters cause confusion in the surrounding villages, whose inhabitants either dare to enter the archive or find themselves overwhelmed by the scale of the novelty. The fact is that the archive is now at the mercy of the people; without its defensive wall, nothing can stop the information it contains from being publicly revealed. And, apparently, this is not an isolated process; the word has spread and the same thing is happening in other parts of the world. The early confusion is all-encompassing, and many do not know what to do with the new torrent of information, while others seem to find it relatively easy to find their way in this new context, accumulating everything that falls into their hands (in what is a highly interesting digital Diogenes syndrome) and eventually becoming the guardians of the information they greedily accumulate.
It is frankly difficult to progress at the pace set by technological developments in a society whose general atmosphere is not favourable to the introduction of ICTs. Corporations, public administrations, the institutional world, the education system and some sectors in society are very reluctant to adapt to the new reality, although it is also true that they lack some of the necessary resources and training. But others, such as the emperor himself, are stubborn, and attempt to set impossible boundaries, by means of clumsy regulations defending established and lucrative industrial processes which operate against the general interests and the most basic principles of cultural processes and creativity. Those of us who work in the art world are equally unable to escape this recontextualisation process. The opposition of some artists to the hegemonic institutional system of the 1960s and 70s was barely able to resolve some isolated issues which now seem to be getting worse, as the rug is again pulled out from under us. The Museum, that mausoleum of artistic relics, and, now, the Art Centre, are facing serious difficulties in adapting to this new situation. Many cultural institutions continue to ignore the change, holding on to old models based on the hierarchical control of information and to the tutelage of citizens. They fail to realise that they are immersed in a process of deep transformation of the relationship between cultural entities and their target audiences. They do not seem to understand that one of the main transformations in the era of the information society is the change in audience habits, to the extent that it is possible to speak of a new era of participation and interpretation. Art world audiences, museum and art centre visitors, and those taking part in various cultural events no longer wish to be restricted to only receiving information on these events, and they now demand to have the chance to interact with them, to be active participants in the actual mechanism for the transmission of information and in the process whereby this information is converted into knowledge. There are very few cultural institutions that are responding to this increasingly obvious situation. Those in charge of the communication departments in these museums and cultural centres feel very comfortable in their roles within the model of linear and unidirectional communication, where there is no space for collaborative channels for communication and participation, which would allow access to the systems for the selection and social assessment of information. Cultural institutions put a great deal of effort into the organisation of traditional press conferences where the main aim is to secure media coverage and reviews in the culture and society sections of the most important forms of traditional media (press, radio and TV) and their cultural supplements. These reviews are presented unilaterally, with no fact-checking or input from the institution in question, thus failing to offer more information and expert opinions on the exhibition to its potential visitors and users. We can look at the relationship with the public in the same way: the disproportionate level of advertising of the information source in comparison with its inability to appreciate the reactions of its audience. These unilateral discourses are pre-set and closed to discussion and collective participation and management.
If we observe the ritual carefully, examining the ceremonial aspects of culture, we will ultimately question what all those people in sandals and socks are doing queuing up outside our museums. They do not seem to be marking the culmination of a process whereby the cultural production offered by artists becomes socially representative, full of meaning and symbolic power. Watching the buses full of students and tourists coming and going from the museums, I deduce that these visitors cannot be taking part in any sort of collective participation process beyond the mere fact of going somewhere together. It would seem, rather, that they are visiting a sort of “curio cabinet”, or a strange ritual with little ability to entertain. This was already made clear in a letter by the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS): “Cultural tourism is that form of tourism whose object is, among other aims, the discovery of monuments and sites.” Therefore, they are not obliged, according to the museums’ document, to fraternise with artists, other cultural agents or any member of the social-cultural world, although they do have to acquire a certain level of knowledge about the “place”. The problem is that the “place” is disappearing on a physical level, or at the very least, becoming “something else”.
It is undeniable that museistic institutions are facing a challenge not without paradoxes and even contradictions, such as the fact that they must physically exist as a place, and promote cultural initiatives set in a representational form that is becoming increasingly vague. Representation and diffusion systems use immaterial networks, which, however, inevitably require a physical vessel, a real space in which to produce and convey information. The concept of permanence is becoming harder to maintain, whilst that of hybrid and temporary zones in which people can get together to speak, work and even celebrate things, and can in turn dissolve into a social group, moving from one group to the other and forming new groups. We must accept these contradictions. The contradiction of a cultural process which requires time in the face of frantic social and technological developments. As with libraries, the spaces devoted to the visual arts must become places in which to generate knowledge, and manage, produce, display and share information, rather than merely storing or arranging objects in cabinets. They must become a media centre-laboratory, a resource centre familiar with contemporary uses of ICTs. An open space, a channel of communication between tactical and independent social structures, the world of academia and theoretical studies, contemporary art practices and experimentation, that which belongs “here” and “there”. In this sense, it must be a means rather than an end.
Cultural policies from the last few years seem to have been designed to speak about art without taking artists into account. It appears that we artists are not valid cultural agents beyond our mere ornamental role, which lacks any kind of function in the Cultural System. Surely our obvious secular inability to make use of resources with which to influence public opinion and condition the supply and demand of cultural goods and services is what has led us to this uncomfortable position? Or could it be that everything has changed? That we are no longer talking about culture as a public service? While we waste time parading our egos around the most exquisite galleries, begging for spaces in which to show our work, Cultural Marketing professionals are conspiring behind our backs, spouting their perverse jargon: corporate social responsibility, the commercialisation of collective processes and cultural industries, etc.
An area’s cultural agents are the people, groups and institutions which play a part in the creation, production, exhibition and preservation of culture, establishing relationships which affect the configuration of the Local Cultural System and which have at their disposal the necessary resources to influence public opinion and condition the supply and/or demand of cultural goods and services. There seems to be wide consensus regarding the claim that knowledge is power, but we cannot leave it in the hands of whoever happens to be available. We must emphasise the importance of the consumption of information as a process for the production of meaning in the construction of cultural identities, highlighting the role of audiences in their interaction with the channels and messages of mass culture, as part of an extensive and complex process in the field of cultural and communication industries. The functional logic of cultural industries has become obsolete. The adaptation of society to these new functions and customs, these new demands and transformations, is an unprecedented challenge for artists as well. We should aspire to face this challenge with the aim of encouraging the development of a new understanding of artistic practices, with a complex research structure which will enable the production of immaterial work invested with an innovative and enterprising spirit. We are undoubtedly experiencing the reformulation of the processes for the production, transmission and appropriation of symbolic goods, which is leading us to question the models for the construction of subjectivity and social organisation. We must use the tools available to us to enable citizens to take part in distributed networks which are not susceptible to political control, as well as combining (by using a range of technologies) the deliberative and participative elements which appear to be incompatible with previous models.
Citizens (whose capabilities have almost been reduced to those of mere consumers) are unleashing forces which will “flatten” governments, creating a new civil society. We are constantly redefining the spheres of influence, which will lead to inevitable misunderstandings and confrontations. The demand for a public space has been a historical constant which is undergoing constant redefinition; it is a matter of remaining vigilant when facing new challenges, as well as finding new ways for society to express itself with absolute freedom. At the moment we are working in a very tight space, subject to constant pressure, which needs to be expanded. When that happens, the tension will become untenable. We must assume our responsibility. Visual artists, as a group, cannot take refuge in their role as mere servants of established cultural structures, defending impossible positions. Those of us who work in the field of art must help introduce the necessary transformations so that the essential structures of the Art Institutions may be modified, destroying its foundations if necessary, and turning its ruins into their castle. Working together, putting our shoulders to the wheel, in an unstoppable collective process.

The ideas expressed here are part of a complex process, and it is probably safe to say that they stem from opinions expressed in bars or on the Internet. Therefore, the text is subject to the Creative Commons licence: “Attribution Non-Commercial 2.5 Spain”, whereby you are free to copy, distribute and transmit the work, as well as producing derivative works.




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