JUNE 3 – SEPTEMBER 6, 2010

Photo by Paul Ramírez Jonas, courtesy Creative Time.
Photo by Paul Ramírez Jonas, courtesy Creative Time.

The object of Key to the City is to collect experiences. Populist in spirit, this universal key, the brainchild of Paul Ramírez Jonas, provides the holder with access to obscure spaces in public institutions, private establishments, and municipal sites like docks and bridges. During the month of June, a key-bestowing station was installed in Times Square, where mock-mayoral ceremonies were enacted for anyone and everyone who wished to procure such a key.
By August, after Jonas’s piece had received a flurry of blogging, tweeting, Facebook “likes,” and coverage in the mainstream press, I approached it with the expectation of a race-to-the-finish mindset and more than a few reservations.

Stop 1. The Cabinet magazine alleyway, near the Gowanus Canal: the next frontier of rarefied industrial chic. When we arrive, we find that the small metal lock box my key is meant to access is manned by a person from the Cabinet office. I poke around the neighboring space, Proteus Gowanus, a gallery with an adjoining bookshop dedicated to maps, taxidermy, and arcana. Complete with a view of the canal, this cultural niche has a Dutch vibe. Accompanied by a close friend and her 5-year-old son, we meet Joanna Ebenstein, a straw-blond, courteous proprietor of the bookshop’s Morbid Anatomy Library, who lets us look at collections of insects and other small curiosities—normally shown by appointment only. Another section, the Reanimation Library, is especially grabbing, a collection of out-of-print books in the age of Kindles. I then stumble into Observatory, a project room within Proteus Gowanus where I glimpse a pre-opening of a show featuring Friese Undine’s small, graphic, sci-fi-esque drawings on view through September 5. Back in the alleyway, we finally open the box and hear a charming 1920s tune while our new friend from Cabinet kindly blows bubbles on us because the bubble-making machine is broken.

Stop 2. The Louis Armstrong Museum (Satchmo’s former residence). We arrive after the last tour and use our key to open Armstrong’s bathroom, normally not on view to the public. A photograph propped on the sink displays a naked man from behind, possibly a portrait of the artist. In the gift shop, beside the bathroom door, Swiss Kriss herbal laxative rests on a podium. Apparently, he liked regularity and was a proponent of the product. A downstairs gallery offers a gleaming horn, which was a gift from Scottish aristocracy, a Djembe drum bestowed by Nigerian royalty, Armstrong’s wool suit, photos, and letters.

Outdoors I meet Selma, the late Armstrong’s next-door neighbor, an 87-year-old woman who tells me she toured with him for three and a half years across the U.S. and Canada at the age of 26. Her mother, a close friend of Armstrong’s fourth wife, Lucille, had apparently convinced the couple to move to Corona, Queens, when it was primarily Italian and Irish, to become the second black family in the neighborhood after Selma’s. “Louis liked living amongst real people,” she reminisced, “though he could have lived anywhere.” We sit in the garden.

Stop 3. Hungry child. Hungry adults. Tortilleria Nixtamal in Flushing has very good food and an inviting, bright, red and white interior. After we eat, the owners lead us downstairs to the basement where a young server shows us how they grind white corn into cornmeal for tortillas. They make the mixture; we press the tortillas. We eat them off the stove, in the close quarters of the kitchen. The proprietors confess that when Jonas approached them they didn’t realize how much the project would affect the workflow in the kitchen, which also prepares masa and tamales wholesale to other stores and restaurants in the city. They did it, they say, because they wanted to give back something to their community.

Stop 4. More food. Eddie’s sweetshop in Queens. I am especially taken by the old saucers, pumps, and fixtures. The place is the 1950s in a bottle. My friend’s son, surrounded by sugar, sundaes, and delightfully appointed glass cases, whispers to her on the bathroom line, “Mommy, this is the best moment of my life.” We planned the sweet shop as the last stop, and the pleasure of eating ice cream in retro furnishings after a long day of summer run-around achieved the desired finale.

In my excursions with a fellow native New Yorker, in a city where we are forever cultural tourists, the project functions as a form of wish fulfillment for public access to secret spaces and participation in a collective experience, however loosely unified. The main attraction is that we can go on our own schedule and invariably discover something unexpected. Its intent to privilege us with the under-studied corners of public space is noble, but public art in which the primary aim is recreation, especially in the summer in the city, risks gimmickry. Yet, in another way, Jonas’s project follows the avant-garde notion of art and life being one, which Alan Kaprow asserted in the context of performance, and which artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija enact through social gatherings.

Key to the City is the armature for extraneous situations that take place en route to the stated goal. It is a citywide exercise in mapping, obtaining permits, and colliding with other key-holders. Jonas accomplishes a logistical feat.


Cora Fisher


SEPT 2010

All Issues