Getting a key to the city has long been an honor reserved for a town's most venerable citizens. In other words, it's long been a pretty stupid notion. "The 'key to the city' feels like an officious ceremony that cities must continue," says Nato Thompson. "For [recipients], I'm sure it hangs on their mantel at home."
No longer. Thompson is the curator of a new project called Key to the City, in which "ordinary" New Yorkers get to enact their own versions of that ceremony. The key to the Key project—which was conceived by the artist Paul Ramírez Jonas—is that these keys aren't sized for mantels. They actually open locks on selected doors and various odd portals in each city borough. According to Thompson, these range from a door in the Brooklyn Museum to a gym locker to "a secret lock box on the shelf of the Coney Island branch of the New York Public Library." Participants find these far-flung locks with the help of special "passports," delivered to them during ceremonies at a kiosk in Times Square.
Ramírez Jonas—who has played the locksmith in several previous works—seems fixed on the notion of what locked and unlocked spaces (and who gets and gives those keys) do to a city. It's not an accident that one of the keys goes to a lock on the George Washington Bridge: "If you think about it, the bridge is one of the literal gates to the city," Thompson says. And to his mind, playful as the project is, it's got a weighty theme. "Below the surface, this work is about space, publics, and power. Who has access? Who is a hero?"
Pictured below: Sites from the Key to the City project, presented by Creative Time in cooperation with the City of New York. All photos by Paul Ramírez Jonas, courtesy Creative Time.
Above: Bronx County Courthouse.
Above: George Washington Bridge.
Above left: Brooklyn Museum. Above right: Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Above: Conference House Park, Staten Island.
Above: Gleason's Gym.
Above: Louis Armstrong House.