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June 14, 2022

Paul Ramírez Jonas: Key to the City 2022 in Birmingham

Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP)

Paul Ramírez Jonas, Key to the City 2022. Installation view, Birmingham, England.

Paul Ramírez Jonas, Key to the City 2022. Installation view, Birmingham, England.

Paul Ramírez Jonas, Key to the City 2022. Installation view, Birmingham, England.

Paul Ramírez Jonas, Key to the City 2022. Installation view, Birmingham, England.

Paul Ramírez Jonas, Key to the City 2022. Installation view, Birmingham, England.

Through August 7, a key designed by Paul Ramírez Jonas, chair of the Department of Art in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, will allow thousands of residents and visitors to pass through more than 20 public, private, and commercial spaces throughout the city of Birmingham, England. These sites are made accessible as part of Key to the City 2022, the latest iteration of a public art project Ramírez Jonas has explored on small and large scales over nearly two decades, most notably in New York City in 2010.

Together, the sites—including a mosque, museum, restaurant and private garden—present a fresh portrait of the sprawling and diverse industrial city, and raise questions about the nature of public space; about trust, fear and what it means to be a neighbor; and about the role of civic monuments.

“We can take something symbolic, that claims to be a key to the city, and make it actually open places that represent the city,” Ramírez Jonas said. “And instead of only a few privileged people getting it, any person can give the key to whomever they want, for whatever reason they want.”

The Birmingham arts organization Fierce had long been interested in producing Key to the City. The opportunity finally arose as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, supported in part by the Commonwealth Games, which the city will host later this summer.

“The project captures people’s imaginations,” said Aaron Wright, Fierce’s artistic director.

Birmingham first awarded honorary “freedom of the city” in 1888 to Joseph Chamberlain, the British statesman and former mayor of the city, and fewer than 75 people and military units have received it, according to city records and Wikipedia.

Soon, a booth at Birmingham New Street Station will invite visitors to present the honor, in the form of a key, to a friend, loved one, or potentially even a stranger. In formal ceremonies, Key to the City 2022 participants will cross red carpets to a pedestal, state to whom they are awarding a key and why, and record their names in a ledger that will be maintained in city archives.

In New York, where people waited in lines to claim 19,000 keys to the city (after the mayor temporarily ceded authority to grant them), Ramírez Jonas said those ceremonies were often emotional exchanges. In Birmingham, up to 15,000 participants will receive a Yale key engraved key along with a passport cataloging the sites that agreed to take part in the project.

Keyholders can visit an office tower for a bird’s-eye view of the city, or open a cabinet inside a geology museum or a door tucked in the brick arch of a 230-year-old bridge at the city’s edge. At an Indian restaurant, the key unlocks a special and meaningful menu devised by the chef.

For Ramírez Jonas, Key to the City 2022 continues a long-standing interest in public monuments. At most statues of prominent historical figures, he said, one sees people eating lunch with their backs to them or skateboarders practicing tricks—evidence that they no longer function as cultural artifacts.

Though his keys are widely dispersed and their utility is short-lived, Ramírez Jonas said they forge meaning by blending public and private, fusing a civic symbol with the feelings and motivations of the people who bestow or receive it.

“Don’t we want to own our civic symbols?” he said. “The way they become meaningful is through a real sense of ownership and participation. By allowing people to participate with this civic symbol, they also regain ownership of it.”

"UK-based public art project offers any person ‘key to the city’" by James Dean was originally published May 19, 2022 in the Cornell Chronicle.

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