Train to Trancentral Terraforma
When people who have never been to Terraforma ask me how it is, I mostly answer: “transcendental”.
“What do you mean?”
“Imagine being on KLF’s train to Trancentral, experiencing something between chaos magic and pure avant-garde.”
If Derrick May described techno as George Clinton and Kraftwerk in an elevator, in the ascent towards Terraforma’s penthouse the elevator stops to welcome a young and still innocent Osho in glittery glasses, Ricardo Villalobos in his brightest years, Neri Oxman without Brad Pitt and Jeff Koons with a golden sun-shaped pinwheel. The thing is, that when you arrive on top and the doors open it’s not Fondazione Prada’s terrace but an intriguing garden full of statues on the verge of becoming alive, fountains, and foliage paths. A temporary secret garden of avantgarde(n) that becomes your homeland for three days.
The festival has been on pause since 2019, like most festivals – aside from the (un)lucky ravers who got stuck at the Tribal Gathering in Panama who probably are still living their best life (even if we all know that this is not the case). That said, I had been thinking about it for many weeks before, wondering if I would still be able to cope with a festival as I used to, thus emptying my mind and diving into a dense magnetic trip, eating little, alternating intense dancing sessions with utopian talks while lying on the grass in front of the villa and saying to whoever I had on my side that life is amazing when it’s Terraforma, and being asked that question over and over again: “What if we lived in a festival forever?”.
The seventh edition of Terraforma was a magnifying lens on all the things going on around us, it was warm as fuck, it didn’t rain (a tradition at the festival as almost every year since its debut strong bursts of rain have come to bless the Terraformers, pissing off the organisers) and more than other years some of the performances were very straightforward, no fuss. Still ultra-transcendental but different, something similar to when you are thirty and remember when you were partying at twenty and didn’t feel the weight of the world.
When I arrived on site around 8.30 pm I had to rush otherwise I would have missed the start of the festival, which is always an epic and very touching moment, usually featuring a singing voice, this year the one of Lafwandah in collaboration with Valentina Magaletti’s drumming. I arrived at the main entrance and had to cross the entire festival to reach the camping (which is on the other side). Anxious not to be stopped by hundreds of ‘hiiiiiii, hiiiiiii, ciaoo’, I walked through the woods like an adventurous Walden trying to remember which outfit I picked for that night, was it the pink leopard print dress? I enjoy programming outfits as much as I know that at Terraforma it is more useful to be comfortable than good looking (although Kim Kardashian taught us we can do both at the same time by wearing SKIMS cycling shorts).
If you live in Milan and work in fashion, art or music, you can be sure to meet most of your colleagues at Terraforma, but the nicest thing is that you will also meet so many friends from abroad and loads of unknown people, which is kind of relieving. At a certain point backstage, I was surrounded by Cattelan, my Bruxelles highschool mate who got married to a super boring finance dude and now is on the quest for life’s uttermost bliss and a fascinating unknown South-African guy wearing sculptural Kuboraum glasses.
I don’t want to sound too flowery as this could be the risk when describing Terraforma, it is pointless to say, but maybe necessary to remind it that it is a fully-fledged one of the most incredible and interesting festivals of our decade. There are many reasons, one is very dear to me: it is the pace of its deployment. I always found too confusing festivals in which lots of stuff is happening at the same time. I usually spent hours trying to figure out if it made more sense to go to stage A to listen to Moodyman or stage F for Bicep. I would always end up lost in between in a random Boiler Room stage with Nina Kraviz. At Terraforma one feels guided, you have the sensation that someone is reading your mind and you get exactly what you need at the moment you need it. The degree of telepathy created by the performances is unparalleled by any other festival, nothing is there just because it’s the album of the year.
Starting with Amnesia Scanner brainwashing live, which followed the opening act, was a fundamental reboot. While the Finnish duo in collaboration with Freeka Tet’s visuals took over the Labyrinth, I realised I was too programmed and neurotic after two years of absurdity to be able to immediately relax. Their performance, blending noisy and ragged sonic collages, cleared out all doubts on how schizophrenic is the world we live in, still, they didn’t impose that vision, they translated it and made it understandable.
A similar thing happened the following day during EXPAT’s performance. Mykki Blanco and Samuel Acevedo took over the main stage subversing it with a sincere contemporary punk-ness. When I was backstage before they started, I heard someone saying: “Mykki vuole fare casino.” (Mykki wants to mess around). At that moment he passed in front of me with a huge grid, his face was covered with blue paint and he wore a medievalesque top with a red cross on it. That messing around of EXPAT had the same effect of AS, it was a well thought and punctual way of doing it, self-ironical yet essentially serious. “This is a climate crisis, this is a climate crisis, decolonise the climate crisis. I only see white men around me”, repeated Mykki while standing on a fruit crate in the middle of the sandy dancefloor. Those words weren’t new to us, yet at that moment, in the stagnant warmth of Saturday at 4 pm in Italy, they felt real, they had a physical impact rather than intellectual, or a blending of both. Something like an embodied awaremess: awareness of mess.
In the wake of Mess, both Crystalmess and DJ Marcelle (also known as Another Nice Mess) contributed to making this seventh edition the thing of the year 2022 (and also 2021 and 2020). Several times I said to myself that it was a festival of queens. I don’t want to sound biased, but there were some very powerful things going on when hiphop artist Mc Yallah, the singer of Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Forces, or the whole (semi-naked) crew of Teto Preto, were on stage. Their presence was highly empathetic, fiercely powerful but in a sweet way. “It has been two years, but you are such an intelligent crowd, it was worth it.” said Yallah after declaring she wanted to get married to an Italian and live in Italy for the rest of her life.
“Luckily”, there are not so many Italians at Terraforma, and that is a good thing in many ways. I do love my fellow citizens and I am not here to dive into stereotypes of Italians but to point out that Terraforma’s crowd, namely the Terraformers, is a multifaceted audience spanning from Australia, the US to Japan and of course many Germans, Polish, Dutch who are amongst the most trained and exemplar festival goers, veterans of temporary community building around music. The fil rouge connecting all participants is explicit, first of all, the festival’s program is not a parade of headliners, you won’t find Dekmantel’s crowd (but will probably find its organizers alongside those of CTM and Primavera).
Terraformers are prone to be intrigued as the festival’s communication is evocative, at times very poetic, generating curiosity rather than yearning to fully dive into the “tryptic” (which I discovered is a deadly mix of pills, keta and cocaine). Terraformers are a thing of Terraforma, an essential piece of the composition; they generate the festival’s resonance and tone as much as John Cage’s audience unconsciously did during his 4’33’’ piece.
Silence is another key element at the festival as the music stops around 5 am and re-starts around 10 am. This allows one to sleep which is kind of revolutionary for a contemporary festival in my opinion. Even if you sleep little (as the camping gurgles with bubbly ambient-trancey afterparties in tents and it becomes pretty warm from 9am), there is the possibility to pause without FOMO that you’re about to miss the most epic DJ set of the festival.
Speaking of those outstanding sets, here is my selection: PLO Man’s closing on Saturday night, Piezo on Saturday afternoon, Dj FATi’s on Saturday morning, Paquita Gordon’s and Donato Dozzy’s on Sunday afternoon, but especially: the live performance of NR/MA on Saturday morning. I must admit I fell in love with this guy, MA, probably because of the inescapable combination between absolute sexiness and his impressive, theatrical interpretation. His presence on stage evoked Gutai’s kami-yaburi performances: drifting back and forth on Ratti’s dubby and crispy tonalities, he used his voice to pierce subsequent layers of personality, embodying a severe ruler at times an overexcited poet (subsequently over exciting me as well). After the performance finished I approached him with the excuse of being a journalist. I think maybe it was too early for our love, I am known for being very aggressive to men, and I kind of don’t want to change that, it’s part of my Scorpio essence. After filling him with compliments and smiles, I asked what the Japanese dialogues were about. “It’s very abstract.” He told me. “Hard to explain from Japanese.”
Hot and cryptic, done.
I hardly end up having love affairs in a tent at Terraforma, I don’t have time for that, as much as I never understood people having sex in Berghains’ toilets when there is crazy music going on. Terraforma is for me like diving into a fantastic story, each day is a chapter and each act is a chapter within the chapter, hence with the time one gets more and more into the festival’s rhythm, you kind of “feel” when it’s the right time to run for a shower, grab a bruschetta at the Pantura stand (I always go there because Saverio who runs it is my crush since TF2018 and usually gives me extra food), get changed before the night or chill in the Labyrinth.
The latter is one of the architectural interventions of Terraforma on the hosting landscape, part of the sustainability program of the festival which takes place over the years through various interventions. The Labyrinth is a real maze built with local plants following the original plans found in Villa Arconati. Performances taking place there are always site-specific, such as AS and the Higher Intelligence Agency. The audience doesn’t see clearly what is going on on the stage located in the innermost part of the Labyrinth but is fully immersed in the sound coming from a full surrounding soundsystem. Epic and trippy.
Overall, there is a care in the design of the festival’s facilities which over the year have been conceived by Milan-based cutting-edge architecture studios such as Space Caviar (who realised the Vaia Stage with wood from the homonymous natural disaster) or Studio Petrucci (who is the mastermind behind the Alpha Stage aka the main stage). This year, you could fully admire the architecture while queuing, which was a bit of an issue and pissed off many Terraformers on social media (even if you won’t see many people with phones in their hands while dancing). Waze would have been useful. Then in most cases, you would just drop it to jump back into the dusty Haze as the music was too good to be waiting for a gin tonic.
More than in other editions the program focussed essentially on dancing, probably because we spent the last two years mentally masturbating over concepts, making 3D renders of our concepts and eventually NFTs. Hence, the formula of Terraforma’s seventh edition was: no talks, no panels, no screenings, no lectures, no workshops, no meetings, no streamings, *for once we just dance.
That made total sense as while we progressively encompass that we are facing a worldwide crisis of everything, we kind of are missing the point. The point being that it is because there are always fewer collective, uplifting experiences, which create bonds beyond common intellectual interests, empathetic affinities between sweaty and dusty bodies catalysed by a shared will to let it go, to listen rather than talk talk talk about who you did meet at the Biennale/Documenta/Manifesta.
Terraforma is explicitly about that: creating an atmosphere in a hostile environment, and if years ago terraforming referred to spacey ventures on Mars or Venus, today there is an urge to terraform our ecosystem as it progressively becomes unlivable. And being terrorized and worried won’t do much if we don’t combine it with a shared desire of echoing rather than egoing.
To conclude, I would like to quote a nice thing that Ivan Smagghe wrote about another festival in an Instagram post: “Sorry you could not all be there, really”, and that’s not only because Terraforma is incredible as a festival but also because it is a fundamental human experience, a tool to reinterpret the times we are living in.