SOCIAL SCULPTING IN THE 21st CENTURY
- A change of perspective; how to see everything we create as works of art -
Over the last 20 years, I have been working as both an artist and an entrepreneur. In the coming essay, I will explain my understanding of entrepreneurship and what I learned from modern art. I call it social sculpting in the 21st century. And what better way to start this little discourse than with a guerrilla art performance at an intersection in Berlin back in the day.
THE JOKER PERFORMANCES
In 1999, the quarter Mitte in Berlin was at a turning point when it came to gentrification. Galeries, clubs and underground bars were pushed out of their spaces and real estate brokers took over. It’s not that I wasn’t happy with a nice shoe store and some good restaurants, but it was once again a one-dimensional gentrification process that did not acknowledge the value of the underground culture and pushed it out. Not knowing how to change this, I felt like I had to make a statement but was not happy with the usual ways of political activism. So I came up with a creative new form of demonstration and decided to play out the jester’s license of an artist.
On a Saturday night in 1999, we blocked off Hackescher Markt, a main intersection in the east of Berlin, with 5000 meters of barrier tape. The title of this work was, ‘Very nice said the joker to the king, almost finished’. A subtle statement against the one-dimensional process of gentrification.
Right from the start of my artistic life, I wanted to leave the classical art space, as it seemed very closed and only accessible to an elite audience. I wanted to see how much impact an idea could have in reality. So, performance art, especially in public spaces, seemed very suitable for this.
About a year later, I travelled to Tokyo and blocked the biggest intersection in Japan, Shibuya Crossing, together with 60 people. The performance made a statement against a rigid society that did not incorporate the ideas of the young.
The more rigid a society, the more people can read between the lines. The title of the work was, ‘I am very sorry said the joker to the emperor, but this is funny, isn’t it?’.
Unfortunately, the police didn’t think it was funny. I was imprisoned for 10 days and questioned 7 hours a day for 5 days straight. Police officer Y. Sakurei went into extensive length to understand what the crime was all about. The most interesting part of the interrogation was that we had a discussion about what art actually is. His argument was that he went to police school and became a policeman after which, he studied at night and became an officer. By then he already knew that I studied history at the University in Amsterdam so, what gave me the right to call myself an artist?
After 10 days, with the help of the Dutch embassy¹, I was released and only had to pay a 500€ fine for having violated the traffic road act.
A few years later, my friends from the Berlin-based communication agency Platoon came to me and asked if they could use the performance for a nationwide campaign for the biggest union in Europe ‘Verdi’. Now, this was extremely fascinating to me: one of my performance pieces turned into a demonstration for the biggest union in Europe. If you are looking for impact as an artist, this is exactly what you want.
Probably the most visual work to express the idea of having a direct impact in society and having others make the work is ‘Painting Reality.’ On a beautiful sunny spring Sunday in 2010, together with 60 people, we poured 5000 liters of water-based eco-friendly paint onto the streets at the Rosenthaler Platz intersection in Berlin with which 2000 cars created a kind of modern Jackson Pollock.
In my work, it always feels as if I am creating a painting with elements of society, so this image was the best way I could think of visualising it. Also, this performance was adopted by others; Bahio Center, an artist group in Sao Paulo, asked me for advice on how to create the work and made a beautiful piece in Brazil.
The icing on the cake was when Greenpeace painted the streets surrounding the Arc de Triomphe in Paris yellow during the climate conference to make a statement against global warming.
Now, my thoughts about impact and expanding the definition of art were not new. In fact, if you look at art history of the 20th century, almost all of it has been about pushing the definition of art and bridging the gap between art and society. I have always been very aware of this and am greatly indebted to some amazing artists and thinkers from the past.
The bomb that blew up the art world, and at its core the definition of art, was in fact one of the most commonly used objects in the daily public lives of men: a urinal signed by the artist Marcel Duchamp with his pseudonym R. Mutt and the year it was made: 1917. Duchamp brought an ordinary object into the art world claiming that it was a work of art. Since then, the definition of art has been a hot topic among artists and art theorists. For instance, if football player Cristiano Ronaldo decides to make a video of himself playing artistically with a ball and calls it a piece of art, claiming that it should be shown in the MOMA in New York, I am not inclined to tell him that it’s not a piece of art and cannot be shown in the MOMA. I can only decide if I think it’s a good work of art or not but that’s about it. In my opinion, all other definitions will fail sooner or later.
So, this means that anything can be art and anyone can be an artist. This thought is not new. Several artists in the sixties and seventies have played a dominant role in the propagation of this definition, but it was Joseph Beuys, in my opinion, who took this to a whole new level by developing the idea of a social sculpture.
Beuys’ idea of transforming society was based on the belief that it takes 300 years (the lifespan of an oak tree) to do so thoroughly. Therefore, we had to build social structures that would help us with the process. Among other projects, he was one of the founders of the Green Party, planted 4000 oaks in Kassel for the Documenta² and founded the Free Open University, an institution that continued in Amsterdam and Copenhagen long after his death. Beuys was also the biggest advocate of the principle that everyone is an artist.
Joseph Beuys’ work is too hard to grasp for my taste and he missed his chance at reaching out to the masses with his artwork by making it too philosophical and subsequently, too inaccessible. As his ideas and work did not influence society as much as they could, they surely influenced many artists, including myself; And for that, I am more than grateful.
I always wanted to research contemporary artists who create social sculptures and further develop Beuys’ theory. Unfortunately, the right setting for this never occurred. But over time, there were 3 social sculptures that struck me.
‘Rasenreich’ is originally a project by artist Mario Sinnhofer who, in the artistic process of creating an absurd soccer game, came up with a triangle and an egg ball. It turned out that these balls are extremely useful for professional soccer players to train their motoric abilities and reaction time. Today, Rasenreich is a commercial company selling the balls to professional soccer clubs like FC Salzburg and Hertha BSC.
Interestingly enough, my friends from Graftlab, together with my lawyer and entrepreneur Andreas Spieß, founded the company ‘Solarkiosk’, which builds kiosks that run on solar energy to empower people living off the grid.
So, once again, you are probably asking yourself: what’s the difference between an architect and an artist or an artist and an entrepreneur? Well, in my opinion, there is none.
THE FIRST FIGHT
It was just before the 10th round. A thousand people were screaming around me in a former church turned music concert temple named Paradiso in Amsterdam. I wasn’t happy with the developments in the previous rounds and I knew I had to knock out my opponent in the next round. My trainer told me that I shouldn’t look for the knockout, keep my composure and especially try to box as technically as possible. If I would just do that, he would fall down on his own from one of the punches.
Easier said than done. My heart was racing and the adrenaline and testosterone were pumping through my body, diverging the oxygen into my muscles and not a lot into my brain. I was ready to fight and go for the kill. What did my trainer just say?
The bell rang to signal the beginning of the 10th round. I came out with guns blazing. I pushed him with everything I had, chasing him through the whole ring. The problem was that I so badly wanted to knock him out that I started to haul off my punches. By doing so, he could smell the punches coming and had just enough time to move his head avoiding a knock-out. At the end of the round, he countered with several jabs and his right hand missed by a hair. As I was moving backwards with the punches, it gave me the perfect angle to counterpunch and push him into the corner. Finally, I had him where I wanted him and could land a devastating right to his chin. Right at the moment when I was ready to finish him off with another right, the bell rang and my opponent survived the very last boxing round.
Jean Louis Veenstra, my opponent and friend, raised his hands and wobbled around the ring not exactly knowing where his corner was. His trainer yelled at him, dragged him into the corner, put water on his head to wake him up and prepared him as well as possible for the very last and decisive round.
The bell rang and we sat ourselves down in front of the chessboard in the middle of the ring. The chess referee started the clock and off we went into the final round; the eleventh round. My chess position was worse than Jean Louis’ but I had more time on the chess timer. All I could do was block his pawns and hope that he would run out of time. My friend was fatigued and it was clear that he was no longer seeing things straight. He could easily advance his ‘a’³ pawn to get a queen, which would mean a sure checkmate in a few seconds. While sweat was heavily dripping onto the board, his last seconds were running out trying to advance his ‘g’ pawn and checkmate me in 5,4,3,2,1 … I jumped up from the chess table knowing that I had just won the fight! Climbing the corner, throwing myself into the arms of my trainers, I knew I was the luckiest guy on earth becoming the first chessboxing champion of the world…
Looking around, I saw all the fans from Berlin cheering and screaming, my parents, brother and friends feeling relieved. The whole location was on fire! “It worked!”, I was thinking. “We created a sport⁴ that could spread all around the world!”. What started as an art performance turned into something real. We created the perfect social sculpture.
After the fight in Amsterdam, I knew we⁵ had to make a real sport out of the artwork. The biggest impact the idea could have was to become a real sport; one that others would like to do and even more would like to watch. All the ideas that were put into the artwork would seep through and be transported by others without any barriers like understanding art theory.
In a nutshell, between 2003 and 2012, the sport was developed in various constellations⁶ and turned into a global movement as several national federations emerged.
In 2012, I decided that I wanted to learn about the economical part of life myself — to learn how to create a global business that would eventually give more impact to the idea; basically, everything they don’t teach you at art school⁷. My lawyer told me that I had to write a business plan and sent me an example of 20 pages.
I had no clue how to build a business, let alone heard of things like silent partnerships, convertible loans, KPIs etc… Luckily enough, there was Nicolas Mildenstein, a former McKenzie fellow, training at our gym at that time who helped me analyze the market, create a case study about the UFC and work out the business model.
After finishing the business plan, I was keen to talk to investors. The first elevator pitch was at a meet up hosted by a venture capital firm in the China Club in Berlin where I was introduced to the fonds manager by my friend and Soundcloud founder Eric Wahlforss. The first part of explaining what the product was about went very well. You can’t do much wrong there when stating that you’re creating ‘the smartest and toughest (wo)man on the planet.’ The second part was about the business model and as inexperienced as I was, I completely screwed up this part not being able to answer what the exit strategy was. I also had difficulty making the investor understand what the business model was. At that time, the case was still clearly an offline⁸ and an event-driven business, meaning revenue drivers are ticket sales, sponsorship, merchandising and licensing. If you are from the entertainment or sports industry, you are well acquainted with these models and their potential, but explaining them to a tech investor feels a bit like selling Google stocks to a grocery dealer⁹. All my contacts in the Berlin startup world are tech-related, so as you can imagine, I had a hard time selling my case. Months of pitching against the wall leaving me pretty frustrated.
In November 2012, Enki Bilal, the comic author that directly inspired¹⁰ my coming up with the idea of chessboxing, was having his exhibition opening at Lempertz, an auction house in Berlin. The exhibition was part of a world tour — Beijing, New York, Berlin — after which the works would be auctioned off at ARTCURIAL in Paris. Half of the paintings had a chessboxing motif. I was inspired by his comics and created a sport and Enki in turn, was re-inspired by reality and made art out of it. What a nice circle of action and reaction.
After the opening, we went out for dinner with Enki and his whole entourage where I told him that I wrote a business plan and asked whether he would be interested in joining the first angel round of investment. He said, “sure, send me the business plan and I will think about it.”
A few weeks later, I called him to ask whether he read the business plan. In fact, he didn’t; he is a lucky man who doesn’t read his emails. So, I tried to explain the plan to him, quickly noticing that he couldn’t make a lot of sense out of it and I was thinking, “you are trying to sell a business case to an artist although you didn’t know much about it until only a few months ago.” So I stopped my pitch and said: “Enki, what if you invest with a painting?” Every artist has paid for something with their art at a certain time in their life¹¹. I continued, “… and according to the proceeds and the company valuation, that’s the amount of shares you will receive as a silent partner.” Enki instantly agreed.
I went to my lawyers who were a bit flabbergasted but drafted the contract, which we then signed in Paris in his studio. Drinking a coffee afterwards, we discussed what would be the best way of marketing the painting and we came up with the idea of organising a fight and auctioning off the work right after. The auction house was more than happy with the idea and paid for the event. Then Enki thought of having a female ring announcer that I eagerly agreed to. He said, “let me call Charlotte.” I said, “Charlotte Gainsbourg?” “No,” he said, “Charlotte Rampling!”
3 months later, the creme de la creme of Paris gathered around the ring and la grande dame du cinema called the fighters into the ring. After the fight was over, we sold the painting for 171.000€¹² and our first investment was secured giving me the title of many keynotes that I held since then: How to get your company funded although you don’t write any code.
After hearing the story, my friend and Soundcloud co-founder, Eric Wahlforss, decided to invest as well and off we went.
Now, 5 years later, with lots of ups and downs, sweet successes and terrible mistakes, there are 11 national chessboxing organisations with a total of 3500 fighters, we held 2 professional world championships in Moscow and Berlin, 10 Intellectual Fight Clubs as well as one amateur world championship with 120 fighters from 6 nations in Kolkata, India¹³.
SOCIAL SCULPTING IN THE 21st CENTURY
So, what can we do with this shift of perspective that anything can be art and everyone can be an artist? I think this change of perspective can be very valuable, as it automatically implies a conscious way of going about.
As chessboxing was born as an art performance, I thought long about what it actually wanted to tell. First and foremost, it breaks up prejudices. A chess player is a braniac on the nerd patrol and a fighter is a brainless Neanderthaler.
Furthermore, the whole sport is all about the control of the mind over brainless testosterone and adrenaline. The art of mastering chessboxing lies in the switch from boxing to chess. Your mind is constantly trying to gain control over the hormones to be able to outwit your opponent on the chessboard.
And, last but not least, chessboxing is ‘redefining masculinity’. The sport clearly brings men back to the core of what it means to be a man; the archetypal warrior, hunter, fighter, boxer. But it’s balanced out with the chess and the control over instincts into a new melange of being a modern man¹⁴.
It’s exactly these multiple deeper layers that decide the quality of an artwork as much as any brand. I think spending a lot of time on this is key and just as important to any successful business as it is for a piece of art.
Chessboxing also creates a social structure, as it builds a community and automatically affects the lives and thinking of this community. A nerd can train himself to become a boxer, a boxer can learn anything there is to learn about chess. A chessboxer inhales both worlds and becomes something new. In my opinion, there is no such thing as social entrepreneurship because per definition, every business is social, as it impacts the lives of others through their services and/or products.
Imagine a world where everything we produce is seen and judged as artwork, consciously produced to communicate and interact with us and our environment. Nothing is produced without meaning or a feeling that it wants to generate. We don’t copy others, companies don’t produce what’s already there without a substantial improvement. We only produce when we get really excited by it.
The main question for every entrepreneur would then be: what is the artwork I want to create, the social sculpture that I would like to place into this world? Is this what I really want to leave behind?
- The year 2000, the year of the Joker Performance in Tokyo, marked 400 years of the relationship between the Netherlands and Japan. The news got out that a Dutch artist was arrested in Tokyo in a court jester suit. As prince Willem Alexander was about to visit Japan at that time, the embassy had some leverage.
- The Documenta is considered the most important art exhibition for modern art. It takes place every 5 years in Kassel, Germany.
- The ‘a’ pawn is the pawn on the ‘a’ file, the file on the very left side of the board.
- The rules of chessboxing: a fight consists of a maximum of 11 alternating rounds of chess and boxing. Each round lasts 3 minutes. The 6 chess rounds comprise a total of 18 minutes, giving a total of 9 minutes on the clock for each player. Fighters win: by knockout, by checkmate, by the judge’s decision, or if the opponent exceeds the time limit, whichever comes first.
- With ‘we’ I mean a group of friends and enthusiasts to whom I am deeply indebted for their support and also the discussions that sharpened my thoughts and work. We even had a little art production company for this which we called ‘Kitchen’. Kudos to my main fellow men at that time. Björn ‘Biertje’ Weigelt, Joachim Stein & Hans ‘Mazta’ Finckh.
- Would like to mention in particular my partners in the years 2007–2009, Wolfgang Müller and Marc Wohlrabe with whom I had the chance to substantially grow the sport. Unfortunately our plans were jeopardized by the global financial crises.
- Not that I have been to any art school.
- Right at this very moment, we are developing a concept for a digital ecosystem, which partly shifts our business model into the tech world.
- Thanks to Zoe Adamovicz from NEUFUND for the analogy of selling google stocks to grocery dealers.
- Chessboxing was inspired by “Froid Équateur“, a graphic novel written by Enki Bilal in 1992. In the comic, there is a depiction of a chessboxing match. After 12 rounds of boxing, the contestants play a 4-hour chess game.
- I, for instance, had paid my lawyers who defended me for my ‘art crimes’ with photos of these respective performances.
- The proceeds of the painting was 171.000€ before taxes and fees. It was the first investment into Chess Boxing Global.
- The first amateur world championship was organised by the Chess Boxing Organisation of India under the auspices of the non profit arm of chessboxing, the World Chess Boxing Organisation e.V.
- Until now, there are not yet many women involved in chessboxing except for India, so I can’t really tell what it could mean for the role of women. I have a feeling that chessboxing can play a role in empowering women in disadvantaged positions. Just recently the following article appeared in India: https://www.newsdeeply.com/womensadvancement/articles/2018/05/10/chess-boxing-offers-a-way-out-of-poverty-for-young-women-in-india