Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”) is the large-scale memorial monument in the Sierra de Guadarrama close to Madrid dedicated to the “fallen” of the Spanish civil war, conceived by the Spanish dictator Franco. With its 152-meter-tall cross, visible from more than 30 kilometers away, and its “basilica”, a 263-meter long crypt with a 52-meter high vault cut out of the granite mountain rock, Valle de los Caídos is one of the world’s most controversial monuments.
The structure was built between 1940 and 1959, partly deploying forced labor of Spanish republican political prisoners. Next to the remains of over 33.000 fallen from both sides of the conflict (gathered from mass graves across the country), in its most prominent spot, the basilica features Franco’s grave – and, next to it, the grave of the Falangist leader Antonio Primo de Rivera.
Piercing the granite mountain, the basilica-crypt opens onto an esplanade with scenic landscape views. ‘Pilgrimage’-style paths and drives provide access to the Valle de los Caídos monument. Such pathways are embedded within a sophisticated large-scale landscape design in a territory still bearing remnants of the barracks of the prisoners of war.
At the center of such a heated biased public discourse surrounding its future, Valle de los Caídos is paradigmatic of the difficult processes of re-signifying controversial monuments. As such, it proved an especially compelling case study for the long-term “Deep Space” exploration and intervention program by Hybrid Space Lab that deals with politics of memory, controversial monuments and heritage.
In October 2018, Hybrid Space Lab organized the Madrid workshop “Deep Space: Re-signifying Valle de los Caídos” focusing on how to transform and re-signify this Francoist monument. Interdisciplinary and international, the workshop explored the potential that lays in the integration of creative formats, methods and digital tools in processing heritage. The workshop program aimed at developing creative processes, concepts, and ideas that can break through the discussion and transform the symbolic power of the site and focused on artistic/architectural/landscape/media proposals.
The workshop brought together Spanish and international creative professionals, such as architects, landscape architects, media designers, artists, curators, with historians, art historians, political scientists, ethnologists, forensic archeologists, heritage and cultural studies experts, psychologists and psychoanalysts. It promoted an inspirational atmosphere where participants reflected on a typology of creative/artistic proposals. A typology of proposed tools functioned as a test environment for opening up perspectives related to the Valle de los Caídos transformation.
In Spanish society and politics, over the past few years, discourse and controversial public debate on the transformations needed at Valle de los Caídos have intensified, also due to the Spanish government’s decision taken in 2018 to exhume Franco’s remains. However, any solemn extraction of Franco’s grave leaving the memorial untouched could merely create a cenotaph, an empty burial monument for the dictator.
Therefore, we witness an urgent necessity to change the narrative of the site, especially as it is still an ‘active’ monument – every day, at 11am, the Benedictine monks taking care of the site celebrate mass in front of the grave of (and in homage to) Franco and it is still a pilgrimage destination for today’s nostalgic Francoist far right extremists.
The monument retains its topical, prominent spot within public debates: yet, its controversies and historical wounds are far from being reconciled through collective memory processing. Especially, there has been no artistic approach to find new possibilities and paths to transform and reinterpret Valle de los Caídos.
The “Deep Space: Re-signifying Valle de los Caídos” workshop derived its strength from the potential of an “outsider” approach to bring a new perspective to a contentious and intractable situation. The epistemological contribution coming from an outsider perspective can nuance controversial debates, especially if the latters are characterized by impasse and a lack of recognition of certain phenomena.
This has been the case, for instance, for France’s involvement with and commitment to the Republic of Vichy, mostly addressed by foreign scholars and researchers including Robert Soucy, Eugen Weber and Zeev Sterhell. Similarly, Poland’s anti-Semitism and involvement in the Holocaust is researched and reflected upon by Jan Gross, a Polish-US Jewish historian and by Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski, both of whom left Poland. On Dutch colonial history in Indonesia, Swiss-Dutch historian Remy Limpach remarkably pointed out the extent and sheer scale of Dutch war crimes, undermining the compactness of Dutch historical accounts of colonialism.
With these breakthrough historiographical precedents, the workshop acknowledged that local history is painful and difficult to process, and that a polyphony of perspectives – featuring both insiders’ and outsiders’ voices – may contribute to more holistic, better integrated accounts. The workshop created a framework where international experiences informed the Valle de los Caídos transformation process. At the same time, the focus on such a concrete and very current case study as Valle de los Caídos provided the opportunity to develop insights bearing a broader relevance for dealing with monuments and heritage.
Complementary to the general public discussion mainly questioning the most appropriate location for the remains of Francisco Franco and Antonio Primo de Rivera, the “Deep Space: Re-signifying Valle de los Caídos” workshop focused on, the mostly anonymous, ‘fallen’ and on the convicted that hauled up the lumps of rock.
The existing official printed, online and on-site communication of the monument today fails to integrate this troubled history. There is no information on the prisoners of war that were forced to work at the building site or on their families living in nearby barracks on the Valle’s grounds. Furthermore, there is no mention of the fact that the remains of fallen from the Republican side of the conflict were moved to the Valle de los Caídos from mass graves spread all over the country unbeknownst to their families.
The lack of recognition of the controversies characterizing the monument and its construction is especially problematic, stemming from appreciating that for any process of healing and reconciliation a moment of thorough acknowledgment is imperative. Informing the monument with the victims’ point of view casts a totally different light on it and is therefore essential for its re-signification. Documenting and communicating the history of its making would transform Valle de los Caídos into a testimony of totalitarianism and a tangible proof of its authoritarian mark, beginning the transition from acknowledgment and recognition towards reconciliation.
An approach integrating voices from the Republican side, from the victims of the Spanish conflict meets today’s search for alternative narratives and historiographies. Such developments in memory making and collective processing echo the more general, further reaching call for more inclusive historical accounts. Within this paradigm shift on whose narratives acquire prominence in history, such an approach strives to include voices from national liberation movements in the context of postcolonial processes and perspectives enriched by queer and gender studies.
As digital tools enable decentralized, democratized processing in the form on co-created, bottom up initiatives, we are witnessing an explosion of interest on memory and its multifaceted dimensions. The power relations intrinsic to the writing of collective memory are becoming looser and blurred, because the pervasive and accelerating digital turn of memory making is allowing for a multiplicity of voices to be heard and become alternative narratives. As a consequence, this trend implies that memory making is morphing into a hybrid practice whose future is interwoven with physical and digital features and whose agents are becoming increasingly diversified.
Drawing on the acknowledgment that digital tools open up and transform memory making, the workshop focused on their capability to inform the monument and to process its transformation without physical intervention. The “Deep Space” program in general explores this potential of state of the art digital technologies, aiming at developing creative digital tools for re-signifying controversial monuments, for dealing with historical heritage and politics of memory.
Digital technologies include Augmented Reality/AR (the physical reality being “augmented” by computer-generated perceptual information) or Virtual Reality/VR (an interactive computer-generated experience taking place within a simulated environment), Mixed or Hybrid Reality/ XR (the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact) and Augmented Virtuality/AV (an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real-world are “augmented” by computer-generated perceptual information).
Such hybrid, combined physical and digital, technology tools offer the possibility to process the transformation of a monument without material interference. For example, with the aid of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, the digital boundaries of the Valle de los Caídos could stretch to include the archeological traces of the barracks where convicted had to live whilst building the monument.
Other tools include databases of interconnected archives for scholars and the public, information collection and storage solutions for crucial witness in the form of oral history, as well as interactive educational platforms. Such technologies support an on- and off-line public discourse surrounding the memorial itself, enabling the communicating and processing of proposals for the long-term physical transformation of the site.
The workshop started to crack open future visions for the monument, drawing on the co-creation of digital and analog memory-making practices, with the three working groups proposing new meanings and envisioning creative processes which have the potential to crossfade the controversy.One group focused on the mapping of the monument in its surrounding landscape, developing proposals for paths and viewpoints, creating new perspectives, aiming at making people aware, as they move through the Valley of the Fallen, of its painful history.
The second group stretched their design thinking into 50 years from now, in 2068, and envisioned a future for the monument including the possibility of it becoming a Research Center, a venue hosting an Art and Engagement Program, and a Global Centre for Peace and Interpretation.
A third group dealt with the idea of creating a ‘Digital Archive’ which would allow to gather, access and store bottom-up collaborative and interdisciplinary contributions on the monument’s morbid history. This would foster dialogue, counterbalancing the site’s totalitarian narrative with the networked polyphony of democratic voices, accompanying the decline of the monument – the pixels deconstructing and corroding the stone.
The reliance on artistic practices and applied disciplines transgressing the arts field, such as architecture and media, to approach controversial heritage investigates how these disciplines and their interaction may contribute to the re-construction of memory, exploring the potential of integrating diverse methods to process historical wounds.
The focus on such digital creative tools allow us to envision ever-expanding domains for cultural heritage and memory making in both time and space, potentially eliminating boundaries to engagement and visualization and allowing for radical re-signification of physical monuments via digital, networked archives. The workshop kick-started the “Deep Space” exploration, focusing on how future heritage sites could look, feel, sound like, and how their digitally enriched features could affect memory-making processes.