The Rules of the Game

A new conceptual game makes its way to Knoxville

Earlier this summer, Chris Molinski put out a call for collectors of all kinds to submit their goods for a summer exhibit at the Art Gallery of Knoxville. In collaboration with a website of the same name, Public Collectors addresses "the concern that there are many types of cultural artifacts that public libraries, museums, and other institutions and archives do not collect or do not make freely accessible." Making these collections public forces a closer examination of why we collect and how we attempt to organize information in a meaningful way.

Enter Marissa Jahn and Erik Carver. The two New York-based artists slipped into Knoxville last week in conjunction with the Public Collectors exhibit to reveal a game designed to provoke a deeper assessment of how we categorize and organize objects and information. Somewhere between a cognitive board game and a Surrealist swap meet, the game sets in motion the idea that we are constantly trying to make sense of the information thrown our way amid a daily deluge of physical objects, images, and words and concepts.

The artists call the game SET, an apt term for its purposeful categories and loose rules. There are no requirements in terms of the number of players. In fact, the players don't even have to know each other. You can play for hours on end or enjoy a quick and easy lightning round. The only requirement is to have some objects or content readily available; you can just have the players empty their pockets or handbags.

To begin a game of SET, assemble your players, establish a time limit, and decide what the content will be. I met Jahns and Carver at a coffeehouse downtown for my first game, and we used assorted newspapers to come up with our categories. Under "wealth" we shoved pictures of gold bricks and white-collar businessmen. For "striving" we assembled Olympic hopefuls and a glossy young man just emerged from a hair-removal session. After a few minutes, we assessed our categories, realigned some of the content, and questioned each other's motives. The dialogue between us as players became more competitive as we tried to stretch the meanings of each category to fit more content. But in the end, rather than winning, you've acquired a sense of achievement; you've managed to create connections that weren't visible minutes before.

Afterward, we played a quick round with two women in the coffee house, using the contents of our bags and pockets. Items began to fall into multiple categories, forcing us to reset them into a broader, more general spectrum. I liked the random nature of playing with relative strangers; the game passed with a frenzied pace and a drive to make sense out of what we were putting together. Artist Katie Ries and attorney Stephen Martin hosted a game at their house in Fourth and Gill using snapshots. Jahn reported that the categories took on a new importance when using personal items; she claimed that it become more relevant to some players to determine the literal meanings of the categories implied, adding a new context to the game.

Although it's not required for the game, Jahn and Carver designed an elaborate kit for SET. Kits and interaction both play a central role in Jahn's body of work. "Pleasurecraft" is an installation constructed "to woo a potential lover with splendor and romance." Located in Camac, France, on the Seine, the work is a full-scale motorboat decked out with all the trappings required to induce a romantic interlude, including champagne and a book of poetry. For "Exhausted," Jahn and collaborator Steve Shada created a wearable appendage worn by two separate people. To make the piece work, two figures are forced to interact by embracing and releasing each other, which forces an accordian-like instrument to engage.

Carver is also an architect. His works blur the lines of the functions of private and public spaces. These two emerging artists cross a practical approach to processing information with a desire to be entertained. Play at your own risk.