Iepe Rubingh is a Berlin-based, Dutch performance/visual artist whose last foray into filmmaking involved designing a large-scale installation for Tom Tykwer’s cinematic love triangle “3”. (Tykwer, along with the Wachowski siblings, is also one of the forces behind the long-awaited adaptation of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival later this month.)
And like a character left on the cutting room floor of “Run Lola Run,” Rubingh himself happens to be the founder of the World Chess Boxing Organization, a real fight club that sprang from fiction – in this case from the French graphic novel “Froid Équateur” by Enki Bilal. In what might be the ultimate gladiator showdown, chess boxing alternates four-minute chess rounds with three-minute rounds of boxing – with only one-minute breaks in between – until a winner is declared via checkmate, knockout or a decision by the judges after eleven rounds. Since its debut in 2003 the WCBO has expanded internationally and now includes branches from Siberia to LA. I caught up with the current light heavyweight champ Iepe “The Joker” at the bustling café of De Balie, a massive cultural center in the heart of Amsterdam.
Lauren Wissot: So you launched the first chess boxing event here in Amsterdam.
Iepe Rubingh: Yes, right next door (laughs) at the Paradiso.
LW: Is there a big chess boxing scene in Amsterdam?
IR: No, no.
LW: There’s not?
IR: No. We started in Berlin and at the time it was still an art project. So it was easier to apply for art funding in Holland.
LW: (laughs) Why could I have guessed that?
IR: Yes, we got a shit-load of money. I never had so much money for an art project. We had 360-degree screens with live television! No, but we developed the whole idea in Berlin. And the biggest scene is in Berlin.
LW: O.K., so where else is it big?
IR: Second is London. And then Siberia. And then Los Angeles.
LW: Los Angeles? That’s so strange. That’s probably one of the last places I’d think it would catch on.
IR: Yeah, I always thought it would be New York.
LW: Yeah, you would think. Then again I don’t box and I don’t play chess so I guess I wouldn’t be one to know these things. But I am a former kickboxer. And I’ve always found that at least within the muay Thai scene there’s a high number of artists – and artistically inclined people – who practice the sport. So what is it about recreational fighting that artists find so appealing? Do you see that with boxing, too?
IR: Yes. You don’t know why?
LW: No, I’ve been trying to figure it out. Do you?
IR: Yes, yes.
LW: Well, then tell me the answer!
IR: First let me ask you a question. Have you fought?
LW: No, I’ve never fought – but I’ve never really wanted to.
IR: I can imagine.
LW: Though I have sparred.
IR: Well, it’s all about the fight itself, going into the ring and being 100% focused – there’s not many things like that. It’s so sensual and pure in a way. And basically it touches on the same energy as when you’re starting on a new project and the ideas are starting to come, and you’re getting sucked into one idea, and you’re finding out it’s not good enough, so you’re pinpointing what works and – that’s just like a fight. It’s very close to the feeling of when you’re making work and it’s really working (because most of the time you’re making work and you’re not producing anything). I mean, the process and getting sucked into that zone for a couple of hours is very close to the idea of the fight itself. If everything goes well you’re totally high. If not you have to wrestle with the idea and find another way. With the fight if you’re able to dominate your opponent you’re euphoric. If not you have to struggle to find another way to gain control. If his defenses are up you have to take it to the body. You push your opponent – and in art you have to push the idea as well. Being an artist you have to be radical. Being a fighter you have to be radical.
LW: O.K., I get that and I totally agree. But how is that different from other athletics? I mean, why aren’t artists disproportionately drawn to, say, tennis? Or are they as well? I don’t know.
IR: I’ve done all kinds of sports. Until I was eighteen I did nothing but sports, from running to – I played the highest league of table tennis.
LW: Really? I didn’t know there was a professional level of table tennis.
IR: Yeah, yeah. And I joined the national team for cross-country skiing, played basketball –
LW: O.K., so what’s the difference between all these and boxing?
IR: What would be interesting would be to work it out with a scientist someday, because I think it’s the endorphins.
LW: But all these sports trigger endorphins.
IR: Well, Murakami the Japanese writer is running marathons. I mean, you can reach out for this feeling you have in your art only every now and then. I don’t make too many works – I make one or two new works every year – and that’s because the moments I really believe in an idea are really seldom. So with fighting it’s easier to get that feeling. And it’s brutal. Working as an artist is brutal, too. You get kicked a lot (laughs) yet you have to stand up and continue. Nobody’s pushing you – you have to do it yourself. Look, these are all just small details. In the ring you have to do it alone.
LW: That’s interesting because as an artist you’re alone in your head. And I guess we thrive on getting kicked down (laughs). O.K., so the other part of the sport involves chess. Now I don’t play chess. I would love to learn but I don’t –
IR: It’s not that difficult. You could learn it.
LW: Yes, another thing to put on my must-learn list. But when it comes to chess boxing in order to compete in an event you have to be at both a high level for boxing and at a high level for chess.
LW: But isn’t this kind of limiting the pool of people who can participate? I mean, anyone who trains can fight amateur. Anyone can participate in a chess match. You don’t have to be at a certain level to compete. Is there some sort of Golden Gloves for chess boxing?
IR: Well, there’s people in Richmond – Virginia?
IR: Yes, they’re starting the Richmond Chess Boxing League and they’re not officially affiliated. They just started their own club, training, and we said, O.K., we like the idea – but if you want to be affiliated with the World Chess Boxing Organization you have to fulfill certain standards. And it’s also, like, safety standards. We just have to be really careful if something happens. You have to be really careful when you change the rules.
LW: Do you have weight classes?
IR: Yes, but only four – lightweight, middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight.
LW: But chess-boxing the idea itself originated with a French comic book, right?
IR: Yes, a brilliant cartoon.
LW: And the idea kind of makes sense when you think about it. I mean, they’re not that different. It’s all strategy. It’s the same tools whether you’re playing chess or boxing. What do you see as the differences between the two?
IR: I see the similarities, I can feel them – they’re there – but to be honest there are a lot of differences.
LW: Yeah? Like what?
IR: I mean, come on.
LW: I don’t play chess so I don’t know what that feels like.
IR: Well, of course it’s a lot about strategy. It’s also about endurance because a speed game can be very tiring.
LW: Which is the same as boxing. Endurance.
IR: Yeah, yeah, there are a lot of similarities but there’s a big difference between taking a piece or hitting somebody.
LW: But to me boxing is almost an extension of what you’re doing in chess – putting the mental strategy into the muscles, into the physical.
IR: Yes, but the mental level of boxing, the strategy level, is based on what you’ve trained. And then it comes out in a fight – and you don’t think. You react. If you start thinking you’re out.
LW: It’s relying on muscle memory.
IR: Yes. I just met a very interesting person – an ex professional tennis player and he talks a lot with scientists. And he says, “O.K., what do you want to do? You want to punch somebody. So how do you punch? It all starts with the brain.” Of course it’s not a brainless sport! You have to constantly adjust.
LW: And you have to constantly adjust during chess.
IR: Yes, completely. But there really are differences. The sports truly are opposites in many ways. And I think the combination of the two sports adds something. Boxing adds something to chess and chess adds something to boxing. You can compare it to American football. American football is like a game of chess. You’ve got all these coaches designing strategy and then the quarterback begins to execute it physically. Chess boxing combines everything in one person.
LW: O.K., so how do you feel after a chess boxing match as opposed to after just a great chess match or a great fight?
IR: Well, if you lose against your opponent you’ve lost in every aspect. I mean, if you’re the better boxer and you couldn’t get him down, and he checkmated you on the board, he’s proved that he’s not only strong enough to hold against you physically but mentally capable enough to beat you on the chessboard. It makes the loss very brutal and complete at the same time.
LW: This is all really fascinating, but still, I keep thinking like with football – our soccer – anyone with a ball and a field can give it a go. Boxing pulls in crowds in Las Vegas and chess has international prestige. But with chess boxing, like, there’s only a very tiny segment of the population that this could possibly catch on with, right?
IR: Yes, of course, it’s never going to be a mass movement.
LW: I guess it doesn’t need to be. It’s like an art-house film.
IR: Sure it’s hard to find those people who have both hobbies – who’ve been in a chess club and also been in amateur fights. It’s rare but they are out there. And really anybody can train. Look at Bobby Fischer. He was an American who had to beat every single Russian grandmaster to win, and at the time America didn’t have any chess culture at all.