On capturing the future, by Agence Future

The non-profit futures collective Agence Future started in 1998 around futures studies scholar Maya van Leemput (1969) and freelance photographer Bram Goots’ (1971) travels throughout the world, where they conducted a mind-boggling 382 interviews – and which has doubled since then. A Temporary Future’s Institute, the exhibition Maya co-curated together with M HKA senior curator Anders Kreuger put their ground-breaking work at the forefront over the summer. We sat down with the two to discuss their lives’ work, blurring the boundaries between academic vigour and creative art.

We first met during our studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, eventually ending up in London where we continued our studies in the early 90s: Bram in a fine art course, specialising in sculpture and photography, while Maya was in the full thralls of a media studies PhD. Both being part of the TV generation, it was pretty clear for Maya from the start that the small screen would be the focus of her doctoral dissertation. Combining content analysis with TV production studies, she decided to go with her appreciation of science fiction shows, devising a study on how the future was represented on our TV screens in the mid-90s. Her research project sparked a new interest in us, as we became increasingly curious about the nature of non-mediated images and how they were formulated; how people around the world perceive and understand the future. And taking it one step further, how we could then turn these very perceptions into images. Hence the foundational idea for Agence Future was born in 1998: both fresh out of academia, we decided to embark on a worldwide bicycle tour across five continents over a total of 36 months. We conducted interviews with the various locals we would come across – discussing their hopes and fears; how they perceived their personal, local and global futures – as well as prominent academic futurists. Bram would then photograph and film these conversations. Further down the road, Bram would use this footage to devise “images of the futures”, for instance by following interviewees’ suggestions on where we could “find the future”, and shooting there. Continuously re-thinking what it means to create images of the future, we have also run workshops where we invite futures academics to “place orders” for an image of the future, detailing what exactly they would like to see of the future. Bram would try and execute these “orders” – in a way, his visual work evolved from illustration to the actual creation of images of the future.

Futures – rather than the future – are more of a collective mental space of imagination and creativity.

Once we came back home from our travels with reels of footage and piles of research material, people around us became increasingly interested in this project. Only in 2011 when our new project MAONO in the Democratic Republic of Congo required it, did we set up Agence Future as a formal non-profit organisation. It’s safe to say that during our recumbent cycling travels we employed a diverse yet complimentary range of methods and disciplinary frameworks: academic research questions, journalism-oriented story-telling, and experimental creativity. A key element that underlines Agence Future’s DNA – and not only because we come from different disciplinary backgrounds ourselves, but because we’re also adamant that a topic this imperative must break out from the narrow frameworks of predictive approaches, genius forecasting and operational analysis – is this belief in multi-method, interdisciplinary approaches. That is how we engage in “futures studies” or “foresight”. We don’t use the more scientific sounding term “futurology” of the 1950s, which seemed to suggest that society’s future is predictable as long as we are able to gather sufficient and appropriate data. In fact the future is more about possibilities. In a sense, futures work is all about methodology and design mechanisms – about the “how”, and not just the “what”. Futures – rather than the future – are more of a collective mental space of imagination and creativity, where people can engage with each other across divides to co-create ideas about society, our surroundings, the past and the present. Perhaps that is also why futures studies has picked up on design thinking and why it is increasingly looking to the arts: artists are creators sharing their unique ideas, shaping the world and opening up new possibilities through creativity and discipline.