Friday, June 25, 2010

Key to the City: Part One?

I'd heard rumors about Paul Ramirez Jonas' Key to the City - excited murmurs from other artists - before I read any of the press about the piece.  The idea - public art piece/scavenger hunt/award ceremony hybrid - is a fertile one. Here is how Creative Time, who sponsors the piece, describes it on its website:
"One to one, one at a time, all of the time, thousands of keys will be bestowed by thousands of people on thousands of citizens for thousands of reasons that deserve to be recognized. Keys to cities are traditionally given by a mayor to a hero or dignitary, symbolizing that they can have free entrance to the city. This new Key to the City belongs to us, and is awarded among ourselves. And with this new key, we gain an opportunity to step back and reflect on common space in the city. For not only does the key open up specific sites, but it can also make us aware that the city is a series of spaces that are locked or unlocked."

What this boils down to is that if you go to Times Square with a partner and perform a little ceremony, you can get a key that opens a variety of locks with a variety of results, and a little passport-like booklet showing where to find these locks.  
Key to the City kiosk in Times Square (Photo from ArtObserved)
I went to get my key the week after the piece opened.  I didn't have any friends available at the time that I wanted to go, so I decided I would just head to Times Square, and draft a stranger to participate with me if necessary.  I didn't end up having to work even that hard.  Upon asking a volunteer if she knew of anyone else in need of a partner, she matched me up with a woman who was already partway through the line. Score!

Flora, my recently acquired partner, was very personable, and we passed the forty-five minutes or so that it took to make it through the line by chatting.  She ran in-house catering for an advertising agency, and had read about Key to the City in the New York Post.  She wasn't a big follower of contemporary art, but had a friend who was, and so had recently been to the Whitney Biennial.  We compared notes, and talked of the city in general.  It was a nice venue for getting to know a stranger.

When we got to the front of the line we read the ceremony script, exchanged keys, signed the register, and said our goodbyes.  So far, the piece was living up to my expectations: it created a reason to go somewhere that I wouldn't normally venture (Times Square), and a new and interesting social situation.  
The actual deployment of the key, however, has been less successful.  It took a couple of weeks before I made it to the first lock. Many of the locks are located places that involve time constraints.  The one at Gracie Mansion is only available on Wednesdays, and I ended up in that part of town on Sunday.  I was near the site at Cabinet Magazine on a date it was open, but too late in the day.  My time and location finally aligned in DUMBO, where I went to the site in a locker at Gleason's Gym.  

When I arrived at the Gym, I told the receptionist that I was there for the Key to the City.  She asked if I wanted to look around for the locker, or have her tell me where it was.  I looked uncomfortably at the array of large men boxing intently throughout the space, and asked her to just tell me where it was.  She pointed me to the opposite corner of the room, and I made my way past boxing bags and rings and people ignoring me.  The locker unlocked to reveal boxing gloves and other gym accouterments, along with a box full of a bunch of copies of a small magazine related to the sport.  Next to me a few trainers were looking at pictures on a computer and chatting.  I pondered what they must think of a person making a pilgrimage to their gym unlock this space.  I made a half-hearted gesture of touching a few of the objects in the locker and then left quickly.  I was disappointed that the locker contained exactly what one would expect it to contain.    The appeal of the locked door is that there could be anything behind it.  And anything surprising would be of interest.  But my visit to Gleason's did not feel like an award or an adventure, just like being a tourist in a place that is not an attraction.

I'm still optimistic that some of the lock sites that operate differently may be more engaging to me.  For example, the key is supposed to allow you to turn on and off a lamp-post in Bryant Park, which sounds fun, and perhaps some of the boxes that are in more artistic locations will have more artistic contents.  If I manage to visit any more sites, I'll 'part two' this baby.


  1. What is the role of the partner besides the "ceremony"? Do you meet up again or exchange anything during/or after the project?

  2. Nope, the partner is only ceremonial. For the ceremony, the partner is supposed to come up with a reason for why the other person is being presented with the key to the city, which is then stated as part of the script. In our ceremony our reasons were "for being a perfect stranger" and "for being the friendliest person in line", but I'm sure other people had much more heartfelt reasons. I've heard that at least one person used the Key to the City ceremony as a way to propose.

  3. I think the beauty of the key to the boxing locker, is that it forces arty types into the last place they would visit if were not for the key.


  4. If you're not going to keep in touch with Flora, will you at least write a story about her?