For the crew behind this acclaimed Italian festival, 2020 was anything but a year off. Jazmina Figueroa hears how Terraforma reconnected with its core principles during coronavirus.
Terraforma, like so many festivals, did not happen in 2020. However, this forced hiatus pushed its organizers to reflect on both their core disciplines and the future of live music, themes they have explored with every iteration of their event since 2014. Presenting sustainable and ecologically mindful music, architecture and art at the historical Villa Arconati palace and gardens outside of Milan, Terraforma explores these topics while presenting performances by highly regarded experimental acts—Caterina Barbieri, Mica Levi and Laurie Anderson were just a few of the names on last year's lineup.
For festival organizer Ruggero Pietromarchi and the rest of the Terraforma team, 2020 was the year to focus more on the ideological pursuit behind the festival and its offshoots. The summer was "a moment of reflection," Pietromarchi told me over Zoom in September. "We decided to break from a more performative festival to [focus on] research-based projects."
"Terraforming," or world-building, is an idea rooted in science fiction that has to do with making a deliberate and sustainable impact on an uninhabitable environment. Pietromarchi's approach also draws from an ecology of care, which involves collective practices of self-organizing and mutual support during the unprecedented onslaught of an eco-crisis. Keeping these ideas in mind, how can care guide our relationship to sustainable cohabitation? And can music (or any cultural input) play a role?
Ecologies of care are somewhat hard to imagine during a time of social distancing, especially as concerns rise over the future of our electronic music communities. Nonetheless, Threes (the agency behind Terraforma and many other cultural productions throughout Italy) continued to support experimental live performances over the summer, albeit at a much smaller scale than usual. Thinking through all the apprehensions surrounding the future for electronic music communities, the agency remained devoted to the prospect of a better one.
Threes also curates the festival NEXTONES, which, due to COVID restrictions, was reimagined this year as a week-long research project, Before And After, at a formerly abandoned quarry site in the Val Ossola region of Northern Italy. The purpose of the project was to address sustainability practices as a self-described "temporary micro-community" that attended a series of lectures, film screenings, live performances, DJ sets and workshops. Before And After began as a site-specific research collective departing from the usual audience and performance format of a Threes production.
The intimate setting, with only 30 participants, allowed for a careful consideration and review of "old habits in the music industry and [ways] to develop a new format at this [venue]," Pietromarchi says. "To take inspiration, not only frustration from the current situation." Eco-philosophers, landscape architects, musicians and artists gathered to reflect on the crux of the project: the renewal and restoration of the abandoned quarry site.
Since the quarry was under threat of becoming a garbage landfill, an opera foundation called Tones On The Stones invited Threes to rehabilitate the repertory for experimental live performances and administer ecological methods for restoration. In the 2000s, the Italian economic crisis bankrupted the quarry and forced excavations there to stop.
As a place once marred by industrial mining, now repurposed for live music and performing arts, the site itself is a fitting reference point for the project. Today, the repository shows "evidence of natural life reintegrating itself back into the landscape,” Pietromarchi says. "The quarry began to look much like the natural terrain of the region." This phenomenon, he adds, has also been observed in various cities throughout the world during the global lockdown.
The restoration plan for the quarry draws on the idea of a "new theater"—a way to confront challenges such as the unsustainable impact of touring to cultivating support for local electronic music communities hindered by the pandemic. By directing attention to our most unsustainable habits within music and live performances, Pietromarchi asks, "How can we inspire new imaginaries for sites of performance?"
Upholding their tradition of cross-disciplinary productions in music and art, Threes invited a Swiss architect to show participants how to experience architecture with the body. Another landscape architect provided historical and contemporary examples of restoration that incorporates natural elements into urban settings. Author and philosopher Emanuele Coccia presented theories around the life of plants in connection with sustainable restoration. A morning hike through the terrain guided by an Alpine expert helped participants learn about local preservation problems in the region. This was followed by field recordings conducted by long-time Terraforma collaborators, Radio Safari, who showed attendees how to understand the site from a sonic perspective.
Performances also took place in the canyon stage beside the quarry. Enrico Malatesta, inspired by the region, performed the work "Occam Ocean" by Éliane Radigue. In her body performance, choreographer Annamaria Ajmone submerged herself into a naturally formed pond in the canyon. The week closed with Nicolàs Jaar, who played an improvised live set of his latest work that demonstrated the acoustic capabilities of the quarry.
"Threes tends to work with an understanding of a 360-degree experience", Pietromarchi says. Their productions are not only an immersive space exhibiting interdisciplinary art forms, but should also accommodate diverse viewpoints, such as the environmental and social concerns we face today.
Even in the absence of Terraforma 2020, Villa Arconati did not remain idle for too long. The Villa, which has hosted all past editions of the festival, became a place for more under-the-radar projects initiated by Threes. "There is a close community with Terraforma, so everything is originating from an internal resource," Pietromarchi says. "Things [that happen around the festival] are always spontaneous yet quite natural."
Lockdown resulted in minor yet notable changes to our urban ecosystems. Radio Safari, inspired to document such a moment, recorded soundscapes of Villa Arconati using what Pietromarchi calls "a specific ear." Their field recordings reveal how inactivity affects the soundscape of an ecosystem, and shows us the risk human interference poses to the environmental liveliness of a location.
This break also allowed Threes to return to the ongoing restoration of the grounds at Villa Arconati. Before Terraforma began at this Baroque landmark, the organizers came across a map of a labyrinth design for its 18th-century style gardens. They're unsure whether a labyrinth ever existed there, but the discovery led them to build a replica. In past editions of the festival, the Labyrinth stage hosted acts like Monolake and, for an earlier edition, a percussive sound installation by Plaid and Felix that formed a sonic representation of Villa Arconati's evolution.
This summer, Threes began a reforestation project that will expand the Labyrinth stage. What unfolded, in collaboration with the landscape architecture studio Space Caviar, was a planting and sustainability initiative inspired by a 1982 Joseph Beuys land art planting project, 7000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead Of City Administration, and the book The Architecture Of Trees, containing tree illustrations following 20 years of research by landscape architects Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi.
The reforestation experience turned out to be quite emotional, Pietromarchi says. "It was the first time we got together after the Milan lockdown and found ourselves at the Villa, planting trees," he says. He the rest of the Threes team were reunited to perform an ecological deed of giving back to an environment that has, for many years, nurtured their community.
After long stretches of isolation during lockdown, the intimate nature of care seemingly prevails. The commitment to restoring our electronic music scenes resides in intimacy, not only through the emotive capacities of a live performance or club night–but in sustaining the landscape surrounding us. That is what will define our perseverance.