Questions on creativity

Hermann Vaske in conversation with Ed Bahlman on Can Creativity Save The World?

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Hermann Vaske with 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman and Anne-Katrin Titze on the journey to interview Cate Blanchett for Can Creativity Save the World?: “It started when Cate was shooting The Monuments Men [in 2013] in Berlin with George Clooney. And the DP was a friend of mine, Phedon Papamichael who works with James Mangold.”
Hermann Vaske with 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman and Anne-Katrin Titze on the journey to interview Cate Blanchett for Can Creativity Save the World?: “It started when Cate was shooting The Monuments Men [in 2013] in Berlin with George Clooney. And the DP was a friend of mine, Phedon Papamichael who works with James Mangold.”

Hermann Vaske’s evermore timely Can Creativity Save The World? (with a lively score by Mark Reeder and Micha Adam) features on-camera interviews with Cate Blanchett, Golshifteh Farahani, Isabella Rossellini, Angelina Jolie, Willem Dafoe, Umberto Eco, Shirin Neshat, Garry Kasparov, Marina Abramović, John Cleese, Salman Rushdie, Luisa Neubauer (of Pussy Riot), Bono (of U2), Oscar Niemeyer, David Bowie, Marlene Knobloch, Sean Penn, Radu Jude, Amos Oz, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Oliviero Toscani, Björk, Campino (of Die Toten Hosen fame), Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Lakshmi Thevasagayam, and Lia Mizrahi Goldfarb (co-editor and production designer of the documentary).

Hermann Vaske on getting his Cate Blanchett interview when she was promoting Tár in 2022: “The way to solve it was that I had to come to New York during the New York Film Festival.”
Hermann Vaske on getting his Cate Blanchett interview when she was promoting Tár in 2022: “The way to solve it was that I had to come to New York during the New York Film Festival.”

Music producer and 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman told me that “creativity needs exposure.” Which is why he formed the highly influential 99 label, documenting and championing a number of important and innovative artists, including composer Glenn Branca (a kind of blueprint for Sonic Youth), the bands Bush Tetras (Too Many Creeps #1 selected on the Max’s Kansas City jukebox), Y-Pants, ESG (an Ari Up, Billy Idol, and James Murphy favourite), and Liquid Liquid (a major impact on LCD Soundsystem), plus the Vivien Goldman 12” EP, produced by John Lydon, Keith Levene, and Adrian Sherwood (and Adrian’s On-U Sound Singers and Players).

The shop on 99 MacDougal Street in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village carried only US independent and import recordings. The latest releases flown over from the UK, Europe, Jamaica, and Australia, as well as those brought in by bands (e.g. the B-52’s with Rock Lobster) could be listened to there (Ed had two turntables connected to a mixing board), thus becoming the go-to location for DJs, club bookers, and music enthusiasts as early as 1978. Vivien Goldman on 99 to Tim Ross in 1998: “The store used to function a bit like the old Rough Trade shop, where it was very much also a milieu or salon where people would hang out and you’d have an exchange of ideas. It was a very creative atmosphere.”

In the first installment with Hermann Vaske we start out by discussing his work in London in the Eighties at Saatchi & Saatchi and how an invite by the “creative supremo” Paul Arden to his summer house in Sussex sparked the first questions about creativity. From there we go to the journeys it took to capture the on-camera interview with Cate Blanchett (with the help of Phedon Papamichael) and the quick thinking of booking a flight from Berlin to arrive in New York the day before the 2020 COVID travel ban to the US to meet with Shirin Neshat, Julian Schnabel, and Willem Dafoe.

Golshifteh Farahani: “When it’s necessary and there is no other choice the rain of creativity starts.”
Golshifteh Farahani: “When it’s necessary and there is no other choice the rain of creativity starts.”

Speaking about Hermann’s longtime friend and collaborator, the entrepreneurial Mark Reeder (who is also interviewed in the film), we are joined by Ed Bahlman to recall the creative scene in New York and West Berlin the decade before the Berlin Wall came down and touch upon Heiko Lange, Klaus Maeck, and Jörg A. Hoppe’s B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989.

On June 7, Hermann Vaske will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the German Art Directors Club and earlier this year he was honoured with a SXSW Innovation Award nomination for Community Empowerment with his World Creativity Project. Can Creativity Save The World? is the third in the trilogy, directed by him, for his World Creativity Project, preceded by the documentaries Why Are We Creative? and Why Are We Not Creative?

From Berlin, Hermann Vaske joined us on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Can Creativity Save the World?

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello!

Hermann Vaske: Hello! Hi!

Hermann Vaske on Phedon Papamichael and the initial connection to Cate Blanchett: “I gave him my first book to hand to Cate with a handwritten letter, which he did.”
Hermann Vaske on Phedon Papamichael and the initial connection to Cate Blanchett: “I gave him my first book to hand to Cate with a handwritten letter, which he did.” Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

AKT: Creativity has been on your mind for decades. Do you remember the first person you asked a question about creativity?

HV: I do! It goes back to a discussion when I worked in England, in London at Saatchi & Saatchi in the Eighties. I was lucky to work with Paul Arden, who was the creative supremo at the time. He invited us to his summer house in Sussex and it was a warm summer night, we were sitting around a campfire and had a discussion about creativity. The question of why we’re doing what we’re doing, you know, this existential question.

And I looked in the starry sky, as I described it in the film, and the question came to me: why are you creative? So besides making movies, books, exhibitions and whatnot, I was always reflecting about those questions like why are you creative? Or why are we not creative? And can creativity save the world? It’s an ongoing project.

AKT: Cate Blanchett is in a way framing How can creativity save the world. Sorry, I just added a “how” to the title of your film! It’s great what she does, not only as an actor but as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. Tell me how she got to be the frame in your film!

HV: That indeed is a longer story. It started when Cate was shooting The Monuments Men in Berlin with George Clooney. And the DP was a friend of mine, Phedon Papamichael who works with James Mangold.

David Bowie’s response to Hermann Vaske’s question if creativity can solve the problems of the world: “No. It merely reflects the questions that we have. That’s all.”
David Bowie’s response to Hermann Vaske’s question if creativity can solve the problems of the world: “No. It merely reflects the questions that we have. That’s all.”

AKT: And Alexander Payne. I talked with Phedon about some of his work.

HV: I did a film with him called Who Killed The Idea? (2003), with Harvey Keitel and some other things. I was asking Phedon and said, it would be great to interview Cate Blanchett, because she’s really a creative artist. I did a couple of books and I gave him my first book to hand to Cate with a handwritten letter, which he did. Cate’s assistant got back to me immediately and said that she was interested. Unfortunately it was their last shooting day and they left the next day to I don’t know where. That’s how it started.

Then throughout various attempts during the Oscars until she came back to do Tár, years later, I reached out again and an interview was scheduled in Berlin, but due to a change in shooting schedule it was altered twice, cancelled twice. Back to square one. Then I tried Venice in 2022 and there was also no time. The way to solve it was that I had to come to New York during the New York Film Festival. That was a long journey of persistency but it was well worth the waiting time.

AKT: You mentioned film festivals, to interview Shirin [Neshat] you went to Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne, where she had her exhibition [Living in One Land, Dreaming in Another, from November 26, 2021 through April 24, 2022]?

HV: I did, but first of all I met her in New York, in Brooklyn. That was also an interesting story for the second part of the current series, the Why are we not creative? film. I had a meeting with Arte in March 2020, came back very late and had a bath. I heard on the radio that Trump was announcing a travel ban in the Rose Garden of the White House in one hour. I got out of the bath, went to the computer and booked a flight to New York for the next day, of course.

Hermann Vaske on flying to New York the day before Covid lockdown for his Julian Schnabel and Willem Dafoe interviews: “The next day I was on the plane …”
Hermann Vaske on flying to New York the day before Covid lockdown for his Julian Schnabel and Willem Dafoe interviews: “The next day I was on the plane …”

The next day I was on the plane and the person at Lufthansa was saying, do you know how you will come back? I said, Mexico, Canada, I don’t know, I’ll figure it out. Then it was a bit weird to get on that plane because when I arrived in New York everything was closed already. I shot with Julian Schnabel and then with Shirin in Brooklyn in her house. It was a Sunday and then I got a message from Willem Dafoe’s assistant because I was supposed to meet him the next day for breakfast and they said the restaurant had cancelled the reservation. It was lockdown, you know.

AKT: I remember it well.

HV: I’m sure you do. Then another one also said they cancelled the reservation. Then we met in a park. I was waiting and then had to get to the airport. A bit of an adventure that trip under the radar to fly against the travel ban. But that’s how I met Shirin for the first time.

AKT: She is great.

HV: Yes, she’s a terrific artist.

AKT: Friends are always a good introduction. Mark Reeder did the music for your film.

Hermann Vaske on Shirin Neshat (with Ed Bahlman): “She’s a terrific artist.”
Hermann Vaske on Shirin Neshat (with Ed Bahlman): “She’s a terrific artist.” Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

HV: He is in the true sense of the word a dear old friend. I met him in the West Berlin underground when he came to Berlin in the late Seventies. I was also at the time doing music journalism.

AKT: B-Movie!

HV: B-Movie, yeah. He was the one who introduced me to New Order and I went with him backstage to the first New Order concert in Germany. The only New Order concert. Talked to Ian Curtis and did some photographs. One of them even became a cover of one of the Joy Division books that the journalist and writer in England, Jon Savage, did. Then Mark and I did something in the Nineties and now we reunited for this endeavour. He’s right now in Taiwan, I’m going to see him when he comes back.

AKT: I want to introduce you to Ed Bahlman, who wants to say hello!

HV: Hello Ed!

Ed Bahlman: Hello Hermann! I remember those late Seventies, early Eighties West Berlin days very well.

HV: Alright! You were in Berlin at that time?

Can Creativity Save The World? composer Mark Reeder: “I think humor is really important in times of crisis.”
Can Creativity Save The World? composer Mark Reeder: “I think humor is really important in times of crisis.” Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

EB: Often. I had a shop 99, and the record label, 99 Records.

HV: Oh wow, yeah.

EB: Bush Tetras, ESG, Liquid Liquid, Glenn Branca.

HV: Yes, that rings the bell!

EB: In fact in B-Movie, in one of the scenes in the loft which Mark said is not his place but made it look like it’s his place, has my first record, which was Glenn Branca’s Lesson No. 1. It’s showing on the floor in the front on the pile of stacked records. He had to confess it wasn’t his place. Yes, all that time - Monika Döring.

HV: Monika Döring, yes, sure, sure.

EB: And Bettina Köster.

HV: And now, I’ll get a so called Lifetime Achievement Award from the German Art Directors Club [on June 7]. And Blixa Bargeld will become an Honorary Member.

Marina Abramović is seen performing with Willem Dafoe in 7 Deaths of Maria Callas: “What you leave behind is forever. The good idea never dies.”
Marina Abramović is seen performing with Willem Dafoe in 7 Deaths of Maria Callas: “What you leave behind is forever. The good idea never dies.”

EB: Oh great!

HV: And Gudrun Gut will be there and I will also invite Mark. It will be a whole reunion, so to speak.

EB: In the introduction to the conversation on B-Movie with Heiko Lange and Gudrun, we made sure to call Mark Reeder “entrepreneurial.”

HV: Yeah, that’s what he is.

AKT: And maybe we are going to see all of you at Tribeca!

HV: Hopefully, yeah, that would be very nice. If not we make something else happen. We’ll do a screening at Soho House.

EB: Great!

HV: I always have plans for New York. I was just in Austin, nominated for this [SXSW] Innovation Award. The first time I was in Austin and I liked it a lot.

EB: Hermann, say hello to Blixa from me!

HV: I will! What a nice surprise to see you!

AKT: And say hello to Phedon from me, when you see him.

99 Records Glenn Branca Lesson No. 1 EP seen in B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989
99 Records Glenn Branca Lesson No. 1 EP seen in B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989 Photo: courtesy of Heiko Lange

HV: It’s nice that you know him. He’s a nice guy, Phedon.

EB: It’s wonderful that you included Shirin, I love her.

HV: Of course!

AKT: And Marina Abramović, we didn’t talk about. Wonderful choice to include Babi Yar [her Crystal Wall of Crying installation on October 26, 2021 at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Kyiv, Ukraine].

HV: What she said is her most important project!

EB: Also big shout out to your editor.

HV: Thank you very much, she will appreciate it!

AKT: Have a good Sunday!

HV: Greetings and big hugs to New York City, see you soon!

Coming up - Hermann Vaske on Isabella Rossellini in Dries Van Noten, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, the power of hope and a new crop of climate activists, Albert Einstein quotes, Garry Kasparov, AI challenges, interesting doublings with Günter Grass, Salman Rushdie plus Nick Cave, and Quentin Tarantino with Hans Zimmer, meeting the great Oscar Niemeyer at the Copacabana, and what’s coming up in the creativity universe.

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