Ruggero Pietromarchi, creative director at Milan's Terraforma explains the steps the festival took in the recent years to incorporate green initiatives and how the platform transitioned because of the pandemic.

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Interviewers: Laurent Bigarella & Pierre Zeimet

Picture Credit: Francesco Margaroli

How did the pandemic crisis affect Terraforma and your projects?

Ruggero Pietromarchi: In terms of productions, 2020 was of course not a good year, but it has been an interesting one for Terraforma. As an example, we realised the plantation program. It was the first action the Terraforma team took over just after the first lockdown in June 2020. We reunited the team, and we went on the field in Villa Arconati. The whole team planted about 100 trees. This was done in two episodes: the first one in June and the second one in November.

It was quite refreshing, to reunite all the team in the field and do this kind of action. The plantation was part of the sustainability program of Terraforma, together with our architectural studio, Space Caviar

Terraforma © Francesco Margaroli

Also in 2020 there was Before and After, a new format, a reinterpretation of Nextones. The pandemic helped us reshape Nextones which is taking place this year from July 27th and encompasses the residential part implemented last year. Nextones is a festival happening in the mountains in Val D’Ossola, an incredible region in the North West of Italy. It is an incredible scenario which worked perfectly for opera music, as well as AV shows.

We were contacted by the main organization, Tones on the Stones, which asked us to take over the creative direction of Nextones from 2019. Of course, we were enthusiastic, because the AV shows are not something that we have been working a lot with for Terraforma. We usually try to avoid video shows as we really want to value the site and park of Villa Arconati (the venue where Terraforma usually takes place). When we first thought of Nextones, we realized that there was something missing in the project, because the festival was itinerant: each year it would be located in a  different quarry, especially in active quarries.

The thing is the quarries are industrial ones. These strip the materials from the mountains and therefore have a huge impact on the landscape. We were a little bit skeptical on this aspect of the festival and started thinking about what kind of endorsement can go towards this kind of industry which we didn’t really feel comfortable with?

Terraforma © Francesco Margaroli

We immediately started pushing towards finding a stable home, a theater for the festival. As there are so many abandoned quarries because of the crisis, of course. We were lucky enough to find the site exactly in 2020. Sometime after, just before the pandemic, we managed to sign the contract. That allowed us to develop Nextones into Before and After, which we wanted to be a moment of reflection on this site. 

Of course last year the performative acts could not happen like they used to be. We thought: we have the site, we have this moment in which we cannot do huge shows, so let’s bring together a small number of people and let’s start this reflection from different angles. Involving architects, landscape architects, a philosopher, hikers and musicians, of course, to think about this place which is going to be our home for the next few years. The site is incredibly beautiful because it has been re-inhabited by nature. And so we want to keep that feeling of nature, the re-appropriation of the site, as well. Making it a cultural space for everybody, for the community.

This was quite interesting to see how we managed to intend the pandemic as a way to reimagine or rethink the project of Nextones into Before and After.

As a team, how did you manage to shift your approach from a performative festival to a research-based project?

Ruggero Pietromarchi: Well, the shift was kind of mandatory because of the pandemic. There were no other choices. And on another hand, it was also about to happen already. That’s what we were aiming to do, in a way. We wanted to do more research projects and to start working with different formats, rather than just the festivals or exhibitions, installations. Threes (Terraforma agency) has always been pushing in that direction. 

We are not a big team, so that made it easy to be able to still see each other and develop projects, also during the pandemic. We researched on how that very specific moment could help us accelerate certain aspects that we were already figuring out. Another example is the Il Pianeta come festival, a project of Terraforma that we developed over 2020. It’s actually the first time that Terraforma goes out of the Villa Arconati realms.

Il Planeta Come Festival © Terraforma

We took inspiration from this iconic project from the Seventies by a very famous Italian designer, Ettore Sottsass. Il Pianeta come Festival features really inspiring writings and a few sketches that came out on Casabella in ’72. And of course, it was talking a lot about cultural consumption, in a way, and ecology matters. We took inspiration from that to channel the core elements of Terraforma, which are sound experimentation and sustainability, into different contexts.

Other festivals have been working on digital formats in the previous months, as a way to connect with their communities and to maintain some kind of link with them. Have you considered creating online activities with Terraforma?

Ruggero Pietromarchi: Not really, I have to say. Terraforma has too much to do with physicality, with presence and intimacy. I can’t really imagine it totally on a digital platform, on a digital form. Of course, the digital side of our projects has witnessed an important increase because of the pandemic. And I believe this is a positive effect of the pandemic. Digital tools must be considered and expanded. As usual, I would say it’s not about the tools itself, but how this is implemented and used.

But going back to Terraforma, just to give you an idea of what we’re working on at the moment, we just launched the Terraforma Journal. Printed, fully recycled: a physical manifesto to be close to our researches and the community. It’s a different approach from the digital one, I would say.

How do you perceive your role as a festival to tackle some of the challenges the world is facing? 

Ruggero Pietromarchi: Terraforma aims to have a personal impact. What we try to do is to really communicate with our community, with our audience, with our people. And so we believe that they become some kind of Terraformers, so they can spread the message. Festivals such as Terraforma represent a kind of ecosystem. That’s the interesting side of the festival format. Especially such as Terraforma which are really based on this experience model, on recreating a new temporary community.

I think this model is extremely interesting and not yet totally institutionally recognized, especially in Italy. While it should be, especially because this temporary model really gives a lot of space for experimentation and implementation of different actions which can be then used on a wider scale. I think that’s the way festivals, such as Terraforma, should be taken, as a fertile ground for experimentation.

Can you tell us what Terraforma is concretely doing for the environment, in terms of production, travel modalities, food? It seems like a few festivals are currently questioning their impact on the environment and on the territory they exploit but it is sometimes difficult to understand what they actually do to tackle this issue. 

Ruggero Pietromarchi: The impact is a very important aspect of the sustainability of Terraforma. Before all the ordinary impacts that a sustainability project should take care of, we started very specifically from the site where Terraforma happens: Villa Arconati, a 17th century villa, which was pretty much in a state of abandonment. I think that is a very striking point, in a way. The first sustainability action was a reflection and this approach of taking care of a place which is shared within the community. It’s part of our common cultural heritage. And it needed a reinterpretation. Because it couldn’t be any more, of course, what it was: a private habitat, a private space. And it should be given back to the community.

Terraforma 2019 © Copertina

This was really the starting point of our sustainability approach. To start taking care of a site which belongs to our community. So we started from the restoration of the greenlands of the historical garden of Villa Arconati. And this project developed, secondly, in conjunction, in collaboration with a foundation (Fondazione Augusto Rancilio) that is now taking care of the site.

The sustainability project was implemented with different elements. Every year we focus on a different topic. The water, transportation, energy, waste. And of course, we try to improve each edition. But it’s very important to me to get clear that the first Terraformation was really based on this site, which was in a state of abandonment with no reason to be there. It needed a reason. 

To go back a little bit on the name Terraforma, in a more global way: this name is really full of meaning. Do you see terraformation in science fiction as something that could be positive? There are a lot of projects to terraform Venus or the Moon, but isn’t it a failure to want to terraform another place when our planet was perfectly viable? 

Ruggero Pietromarchi: That’s definitely an interesting point. In fact, that’s exactly what we try to do. We took that concept from the science fiction legacy, culture, and we reinterpreted it, trying to implement it on our planet scale, on our scale, on our planet, which totally needs to be a terraformed. Then of course, it’s open to interpretation. It’s a speculative product. It’s not really scientific. It’s sci-fi, in a way. It gives you openness to interpretation.

We are currently working on a protocol, a Terraforma protocol, which might be able to be implemented in different scales, not just music festivals, but different kinds of other events. That’s something we’re really working on.

Terraforma 2018 © Terraforma

The pandemic has allowed certain natural spaces to regain their rights. It allowed nature to – 

Ruggero Pietromarchi: To breathe again.

Yes, exactly. What is your opinion on this?

Ruggero Pietromarchi: In general, I think the pandemic gave us so many points to think about. That was a good thing, in a way. Speaking about nature, breathing again. That’s something that we also noticed pretty much. 

The festival, of course, didn’t happen in 2020. And on the same weekend, we decided to go with this Radio Safari project. We realized that something was happening, that nature was alive again. 

Instead of making the festival, we decided instead to document this important moment, so that it might be impressed within all us in a way. We developed this audio podcast format with Radio Safari, which was essentially collecting the sounds, the natural sound of Villa Arconati on the same weekend where the festival should have been. That became, for us, a very important moment, which I hope is going to be a document to remind us all what was happening once we stopped for a few months all of our activities.

What are you planning for the coming months and how do you see the future for Terraforma? 

Ruggero Pietromarchi: Well, we have a few projects, research-based, like the one we mentioned before. Less based on physicality and more on research installations, exhibition. Always reflecting the themes of sound and ecology. 

The approach to 2021 is to be the same as 2020: a positive and responsible attitude.  We are trying to focus as much as possible on the present rather than the past And not to be confined to the old models but transform. 

Terraforma 2017 © Terraforma

I think 2020 was an emergency year, where, really, rationality was taken over by intuition. You needed to be very intuitive to react to what was happening. I believe and I hope that the future will be more conscious. Where we all have this heritage from the past year and so now we act more consciously. What do you think?

Well, kind of agree with you. It is definitely a time to think about new models, new ideas. It is also the time to address new challenges. We need to take this as an opportunity to do it, rather than just looking at the past and glorifying it.

Ruggero Pietromarchi: Exactly. At the same time, I don’t feel the need for radical changes. Especially in models or organizations which were, I believe, based on real thinking and not just business models. So you don’t need to make, in that sense, radical changes. You just need to enable some kind of a direction which is a little bit asleep and then say, okay, let’s go that way. We need to keep breathing somehow.

This article was conceived as a result of our first call for contributions that aimed to address the challenges and changes that festivals and cultural entities may face in the future. Thanks to the contributions we received, we were able to create the Future(s) of Festivals feature series, that this article is a part of. We’re open to new proposals for our next call for contributions, available here.

On the Interviewers

Laurent Bigarella is the editor in chief of We are Europe and head coordinator of the series of forums European Lab. Pierre Zeimet is one of the artistic directors for Lyon’s Nuits sonores festival and nightclub Le Sucre.

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