August 20, 2016
This week at the Art Department, our research branch to explore experimental approaches to art, we are pleased to present the futurist Maya Van Leemput on the collaborative project MAONO where artists and young adults from Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Brussels, Belgium were challenged to create images of the future together.
“Even a very basic understanding of a problem requires a dialogue on its various dimensions, involving a whole range of perspectives and interests including those of experts, lay, adults as well as children, people of different social and cultural backgrounds, different ethical notions, and even consideration of the needs of nonhuman species.”* It follows that contemplating or studying futures is better not done alone and that is one of the reasons why many contemporary professional and academic futurists have a preference for participatory and co-creative approaches, including the work of artists.
Trotation, a fictional machine that adds a third rotation to the earth’s spin and orbit to address and correct the imbalances in the world. Jean Katambayi, MAONO 02013
From 2012 till 2014 the non-profit organisation Agence Future ran a mixed methods project titled MAONO that combined collaborative, participatory, cross-cultural, creative and artistic approaches. Over the course of three years of project activity 15 artists and 41 young adults based in Katanga’s provincial capital Lubumbashi (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and 40 young adults from Brussels worked together to observe, collect and create images of the futures.
The yearly project cycle started with calls for candidates and participant selection. Five days of preparatory workshops were followed by a month of exchange in Lubumbashi. A programme of activities (visits to businesses, political institutions, the university campus, local NGO’s) and a Roadbook provided context for the exchange between the three groups of participants. The artists worked together with small groups of young participants to create artistic and communicative images of the future.
The aim with MAONO was not to observe from a distance what images of the futures the three different groups of participants hold. The project set out explicitly to challenge everyone taking part to formulate and envision original images of the futures and to learn about different ways of asking questions about futures. Two Agence Future project collaborators accompanied this process and provided tools, processes and working methods as well as a safe and open creative, intellectual and social space for the exploration and exchange.
The primary tool offered to the young adult participants was a ‘Roadbook’ containing 21 missions. Each mission explores possible futures from a different perspective and each mission is only complete with an image. That image can be a photo, a video-still, a clipping, collage or drawing and even sound recordings have been made. The missions in the Roadbook fall into six broad categories: orientation, observation, construction, combination, conversation and navigation.
More than a third of the missions set the task of holding a semi-structured conversation about the future. The time horizon used for all of the missions is 18 years from the present (2030, 2031 and 2032). For comparison with longer timeframes, a horizon of 81 years is also used. In the introductions and preparations with participants these time horizons are compared with the time it takes for a new born to grow into an adult (18 years) and with a lifetime (81 years).
The creation of a collection of images of the futures in Katanga was a joint project by the organisers**, collaborators, young adults, the artists and their networks. There was little removed distance between the participants or their images as subjects and the project collaborators (who run the project but also take part in it). Facilitating the young adults’ and artists’ explorations, the collaborators were in fact engaged in participatory observation of a process we ourselves instigated. This entangledness made it all the more important for us to be aware of our own perspectives and relationships with the participants and the collection of images they were bringing together.
These perspectives are rooted in the long-term collaboration between myself, as a futures researcher and my partner, photographer Bram Goots, developing participatory futures projects with Agence Future. Three years in a row we travelled to Lubumbashi as volunteers to accompany the exploration and the exchange there. We positioned ourselves as researchers, teachers, guides and makers, all at once. We shared futures studies techniques and theories. We accompanied a wildly varied exploration of images of the futures. We observed attitudes, ideas, processes and behaviours, asked critical questions about image making and creative processes and the content of the images of the futures that were put together during the project. All these roles were not separate from each other. We learned about how the young adults and the artists think and imagine futures, from the questions they asked and points they raised in group discussions and individual exchanges as well as from the tangible images they produced. We accompanied the selection process of the images for the overall collection by asking of every image to be printed as a photo for a Roadbook mission, how and why this image answers the question of the mission in case. We followed the collaboration between the artists and the young adults closely and sometimes influenced the direction they took together (when the artist and the participants had different ideas about what should be made, we helped them negotiate for instance).
The collaboration with 15 artists in Lubumbashi was central to the project design. The project offered them networking possibilities, a challenging theme, a new process (co-creation) and a working budget. For many of them, the possibility that their work might be shown at cultural venues in Europe and even that they themselves might eventually travel to present their work was certainly significant. It was an major result for all concerned when in May 2015 the MAONO collection was presented at the Inbox of the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA) in the presence of two of the artists. Jean Katambayi’s Trotation was purchased for M HKA’s collection. The Cultural Centre Zwaneberg showed Marchands des Rêves, photographer George Senga’s piece for MAONO 02013. The song Hola by Sando Marteau was a radio and television hit in Lubumbashi. Claus Sinzo Aanza’s poem Aurore was translated and published in Dutch and English.
Over the course of the three years we worked with artists from ten different disciplines: painting, literature, sculpture, drawing, choreography, music, conceptual art, photography, video and graphic design. Prior to implementation it was determined that one third of the artists had to be women (two out of six every year). We found and selected the artists with the help of the arts centre Picha who also made their premises available for meetings and work with the artists. The artists were briefed by the Agence Future team and prepared their collaboration with the young adults by identifying future related themes in their own work and developing a proposal for a creation for MAONO. After the three years 15 artists produced 17 unique images of the futures in the framework of the project.***
Each year some established local names were included in the group of artists: Sando Marteau, who is an actor and griot (story-teller, poet, praise singer) or Jean Katambayi and Georges Senga who had already taken part in several African as well as European arts festivals. There were important differences in the way these experienced artists organised the collaboration with the young students and the approach of debutantes like video maker Judith Kalanga and graphic designer Alain Nsenga. The younger artists had to negotiate more with the young adults about the images to bring forward and sought more support for the practical organisation of their creation process. Artists with a larger portfolio were able to identify suitable links between the futures theme and their own work with more ease than young artists who had not produced as much yet.
The young adults from Lubumbashi and Brussels took on as their main challenge to pay attention to images of the futures and make up their own. The requirement of providing concrete images for each of the Roadbook missions, for most of them meant a switch from abstract or narrative thinking to visual thinking in addition to the switch from present-day thinking to long-term visioning. Finding and making images was an uncommon method, a new form of discourse to most of them. This took them out of their routine and encouraged them to think ‘differently’. Having to create a picture accompanied by text each time engaged their creativity. ‘Picturing’ futures, brings these futures closer and makes them more real. The shared image based work helped them to ‘see’ what their fellow participants envision and not to stay stuck with abstract generalisations concerning future possibilities.
For the participating artists on the other hand, translating ideas into concrete images is everyday business. They are already involved in reshaping reality into sights and sounds, creating different forms and innovative ways of seeing. The artists took part in the project as professional makers and brought their expressive and communicative skills into the mix. Their challenge with MAONO was to include the ideas, feelings and preferences of others (the young participants) in their creation process. By not just taking inspiration from them but also involving them in the artistic creation, the artists helped the participants practice the visual approach MAONO proposes.
The collection of images resulting from the project provides an unusual (if not subversive) look at African futures that goes far beyond the usual staple of NGO dominated and often-negative imagery about the continent. Our collection includes a comic strip about water-mining in Katanga in the year 2032, a machine to balance out the inequalities between North and South by adding a third rotation to the earths spin and orbit, a first-person video narration about the longevity of plastic, a happy tune about human unity, etc. There are more than fifty self-portraits of young Africans and Europeans projecting who they may be in 18 years time. There are images of things to take along to the futures: of fish and of bananas, of children and families, of modern construction sites and houses pulled up out of mud, of bicycles and busses, roads too and even more of people.
The project’s explicitly intercultural set-up helped all involved put their own views into perspective and to bring a natural questioning of the pre-existing assumptions that affect their visions of the futures. The exchange between the different groups stimulated everyone to make such assumptions explicit and to allow them to be placed alongside completely different, sometimes even contradictory starting points.
However, a major challenge for the project organisers was not to fall into the trap of inter-culturalism as described by Da Costa:**** “…inter-culturalism was promoted by theorists and artists who saw in symbols, rituals and performances the world over the sub-stratum and possibility of a shared humanity. Yet in practice inter-culturalism has been a mode of cultural exchange through which First World actors engaged in extractive processes of mining other cultures, adding value to the final product by claiming a universal value of Third World ingredients, and distributing the multicultural product through existing structures of inequality.”
The co-creation process of the artists and young adults aimed to produce images (works of art) that have a strong communicative value. After the exchange period the participants (as well as project organisers) took up the responsibility of sharing the images and ideas from their Roadbooks and the works created by the artists in their own communities (in coursework, in clubs or associations, in the media and at all sorts of suitable events and occasions) so that conversations on futures, needed very much in complex, contradictory and uncertain times, can continue.
* Sardar, Ziaudin. ’Welcome to Postnormal Times.’ In: Futures 42(2010) 435-444.
** Partners in the project included: Centre d’Art Picha, Etoile du Sud, Usahidisi, Université de Lubumbashi, Universitaire Associatie Brussel, World Futures Studies Federation, Universitair Centrum voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking, Agence Future.
*** For a complete overview of the portfolio of 17 pieces, refer to: http://www.agencefuture.org/?q=artists-rdc
**** Da Costa, Dia (2010) Introduction: relocating culture in development and development in culture. Third World Quartely. Vol. 31 (4), 501-522.
Futurist Maya Van Leemput (PhD) partners with photographer Bram Goots on Agence Future (AF), a long-term independent project for exploring images of the future. AF started in 1999 with a field journey in 25 countries on five continents. Over the course of 36 months more than 300 people shared their ideas, images and feelings about personal, local and global futures. Since then AF’s interdisciplinary projects use creative, experimental, artistic and participatory approaches for futures research. Maya is also Senior Researcher at the knowledge centre ‘Applied Futures Research – Open Time’ of the Erasmushogeschool Brussel.
This text is part of the Art Department’s ‘Prophecies’ theme. From July – September 2016 we are publishing content by artists, writers, theorists and more about artistic perspectives of the future.