How do we actually come up with brilliant ideas? A conversation with the artist Bernhard Zünkeler, who has just published the “Atlas of Creativity”.
Interview by Oliver Herwig
Do ideas come from sudden flashes of inspiration or – beware: kisses from the muses? Or are they repeatedly rolled over, melted down and reprocessed? It seems clear: the territory of creativity needs trackers and guides who know shortcuts and recognise connections between things. One such guide is Bernhard Zünkeler, a doctor of law and artist, border-crosser and collaborator. He has just written a book with the seductive title “Atlas of Creativity”. Right from the start, the multi-thinker makes it clear that creativity concerns us all: artists as well as business economists, designers as well as clerks. Zünkeler is concerned with the big picture. In the apparent contradiction between growth and thrift, he sees the central challenge of our time and “the real reason why we need an atlas of creativity so urgently”. High time to talk to the author himself.
Mr. Zünkeler, what do you actually do when you have no ideas?
I don’t know that at all. For me, it’s actually more the opposite, that I sometimes have to cool down in order not to get overexcited. That’s when nature and family help.
And what do you advise with a Writer’s Block, the fear of blank paper?
Then you have to look closely at the Writer’s Block: Where has a bridge just been broken or where is something not the way it usually is in some way? That’s where you can start.
How important are irritations and refractions for our creativity?
For me, they are important sources of inspiration. A nice kick. Like contemplation, in other words: getting down and close to nature. You are immediately calibrated. All irritation disappears the moment you look at the stars. Irritation the opposite of that, when all known patterns are broken. Basically, it’s a wake-up call to your own intuition.
And what do diversity and variety mean? For many, they are fashionable terms, but they make something out of it.
They are indeed fashionable terms, but funnily enough they keep popping up: as the eternal struggle of unity and freedom. It’s actually a big misunderstanding. If you look at life as it arose on our planet, it is one story of the other. The law of the universe is simply diversity. It becomes more. It gets more complex, and life is just the symbol of that. You have to deal with this law, this eternal diversification of nature, and see how nature deals with it. At the same time, it is of course our human destiny to seek patterns. This is how we are shaped to be able to be stable at all. So this theme of “leg to stand on – leg to play on”. Diversity is the game leg. Without diversity, we can’t go any further.
You like to work collectively. What does that mean for the creative spark?
Nice question. I actually believe that we have to reinvent ourselves in terms of the collective. At the time, I wrote my doctoral thesis on the European Union, a large, very lively collective with a very positive connotation at the time; afterwards, I dealt professionally with corporate and labour law and thus with confrontational collectives.
And your conclusion as a lawyer, artist and creative thinker?
Together we can achieve anything. So I actually believe in the positive sides of a collective. We just have to look at how nature deals with diversity. For them, collective always means synergy. How do you manage to create more than the sum of the individual parts? In industry, too, there are opportunities to bring things together that have not been brought together before; the big IT multinationals are showing us that right now. Nevertheless, I would never want to give up my freedom – the freedom of the individual. The collective, the positive collective, is incredibly exciting. I even find the EU a great model, no matter how many difficulties are involved. The EU is a model of the future.
You called your book “Atlas”. Atlases are in a certain boom. Everywhere you see infographics and titles like “Atlas of Lost Worlds” … What prompted you to approach the subject topographically?
To be honest, I wrote five versions of the book. The first one was more of an anarcho book, from cooking recipes to song lyrics, without any system. After that, I wrote something more philosophical: How do empiricism, rationalism and scepticism compare? Then the need arose to argue more politically. Finally, it was about systematics, and I thought of the “periodic table of elements”, as Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev set it up in search of elements and how they interact with each other.
And from this developed the idea of a map of creativity and its components?
Yes, we have to fundamentally change our way of thinking. And to do that, we need to build our own instruments, beyond the microscope and the scalpel. At the moment, we only see the effects of the headwork. And don’t know exactly what is happening. That means we still have to trigger verbally or figuratively. That’s why we – that is, the editors of brand eins and I – have said that we will now simply try to develop a map of what we are. And this map is basically a short map of all the reactions that life has developed to the physical phenomena of this planet. Everyone walks through their atlas differently, everyone builds different houses in these metropolises. One builds only bunkers in the metropolis of fear and the next something else. This analogy can be spun the widest. These are not technical terms. When I talk about the “love of art” metropolis, everyone can meet in it, neurologists as well as business economists. Everyone builds this city differently. But we can at least meet there together.
And why brand eins as the publisher?
I knew Gabriele Fischer, I met her repeatedly and approached her. I wanted to show that plan and spontaneity are not mutually exclusive but complementary. I asked for a publisher’s recommendation because the book should definitely not appear in the cultural niche, like design, architecture and lifestyle. That’s mined terrain. I wanted to go to the hard-core business people, to the computers or computer scientists I talk to all the time. And then the editors said: let’s try it out together.
So who did you write the book for?
Of course, first for myself, because otherwise it cannot be authentic; not ex cathedra about the divine spark. The book reflects the struggle I am having with myself because I am convinced of synergy and believe that it really brings profit for all: so bringing things together and realising that together we can achieve more.
Finally, can you explain the “pathway of innovation” along which the new comes into the world.
Innovation is basically an artist’s path that has been composed of the same elements since time immemorial: You come up with a lot of things and then, with your mind clear and your intention, you really choose what you like best. You repeat that. And make it part of a habit until it becomes second nature. This free play could also be called a dance, then you invite others to interact. The next inspiration usually grows out of this shared dance. That is the flywheel from which something emerges.
Every artist goes from inspiration to imagination and improvisation, to intuition, to improvisation, then to interaction. It’s a cycle. The industry will always try to shorten this cycle. There, imagination, inspiration, improvisation sound like a disruption, you want a clear business plan to then go into iteration, routines, to actually achieve optimisation. But that runs itself dead because you don’t activate the intrinsic forces. Hence the seven I’s to make it easier to remember: Inspiration, Imagination, Intention, Inspiration, Intuition, Improvisation and Interaction, these are the building blocks. If they are not all included in an innovation process, it is difficult to achieve real innovation.
Bernhard Zünkeler: Atlas of Creativity.
Publisher: brand eins, 2023
Scope: 288 Seiten
Please note that the book is only available in German.
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