It was time to move on. Everything we had discussed up until then had been preliminary; we had not yet started the game itself.

Mimicking a magician, I fanned out the stack of postcards.  “Pick a card, any card.” The first player pulled one out. On the front was a color photograph of a line of people holding a yellow banner on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The left side of the banner read (in English): “Stop all nuclear testing! Greenpeace.” The right side had a text in Chinese, but it wasn’t legible because the banner was bunched up and drooping. In the middle of the banner—in the very center of the photo—was a cartoon bomb, marked with Chinese characters, crossed out by two red lines. In the background rose the immense brick wall of Tiananmen Gate itself, with its giant portrait of Mao and the long inscriptions.

The card itself was smaller and flimsier than the others. Evidently it wasn’t designed for mailing, because the back side offered no space for a message, address, or stamp. Instead there was a statement, accompanied by the Greenpeace logo and a copyright notice.

There did not seem to be much to say: the image and the description matched each other very closely. It would have taken very close scrutiny of the photo to figure out why half of the banner was unreadable: was the man at the far right actually tearing it away from the others? Maybe he was a plainclothes cop? Was this picture taken at the very moment when the police broke up the protest? Was the protest over as soon as it started? It might have been possible to make lots of guesses, but the card gave us no further clues. In any case, nobody in the room seemed very interested in a close reading: the image and the message seemed all too familiar.

Just when it seems we have exhausted an image, there was only one thing to do: add another image. I held out the stack to another player, and she drew a rather different-looking card. This one was a typical postcard, made of stiffer cardboard and offering lots of blank space on the back. It had never been used, never been sent. First we decided to grapple with the image on the front.

A shaggy goat was standing on some kind of cobbled-together platform. The goat was obviously dead and stuffed, its nose daubed with red and white paint, and, shockingly, it was wearing a large rubber tire around its midsection. Someone immediately recognized it: “That’s Rauschenberg!” We were dealing with a photograph of a sculpture by a famous artist. The back offered the details: it was called “Monogram,” dated 1955-59, and composed of “angora goat, rubber tire, paint, collage, metal, and canvas.” (That description raised the question, quite relevant to our game: is “collage” a material or a technique? Or both?)

Before we could become entangled in the complexities of this new image, however, I asked a crucial question: “what does the first postcard have to do with the second one?” I held them up, side by side, and let everybody look carefully. Lots of shrugs. I persisted. “What if I reversed them, so the goat comes first?” More shrugs. “Is there any difference? Does one ordering work better than the other?” Here we began to get some traction: the Greenpeace protest seemed to make more sense—whatever that might be—when it came after the goat. Why? In order to test these vague impressions, I picked up the “Piebald Horse” painting again. “Would it make more sense to replace either of these two cards with this one?” Yes, it was agreed: throw out the protest card and put the goat and horse together.

We did not stop to articulate exactly what kind of sense we were seeing in the new combination. Nor did we ask what we were losing by rejecting the Greenpeace card. We were simply looking for “more” or “less” suggestive pairings, relying on first impressions. We were vague about the arrangement: were the images supposed to be seen simultaneously (like a diptych) or successively (like a slideshow)?

I began pulling more cards from the stack. Like an optometrist testing a series of different lenses during an eye exam, I held up one after another, sometimes switching cards from left to right place. I kept repeating: “which works better—this pair or that pair?” We went through about a dozen cards to settle on two that seemed to make a good kind of sense: the painting of the horse and a painting of a gentleman by Whistler. We agreed that they could serve as the first two shots in a movie, setting in motion some grand tale.

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