The city of Birmingham has unveiled a new public art project called Key to the City in which the ornamental key associated with the Freedom of the City ceremony is being replaced with a real one.
The project - conceived by American artist Paul Ramírez Jonas and staged as part of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival - features 15,000 keys distributed to people across the city. Each key will unlock 21 different locations, giving keyholders the opportunity to explore parts of Birmingham and Solihull they may never have seen before.
The honour goes back to medieval days, when the gates of walled cities were guarded and locked at night. The literal key to the city meant the freedom to enter and leave at will. The Freedom of the City is one of Birmingham’s oldest surviving ceremonies, given to a person or a military unit for their service. Regiments with the honour are allowed to march into the city “with drums beating, colours flying and bayonets fixed”. Civilian recipients have included Joseph Chamberlain, members of the Cadbury family and former CBSO conductor Sir Simon Rattle.
Birmingham New Street is home to the Key Exchange Ceremony Site up to July 10. It’s moving to locations across Birmingham and Solihull after that up to August 7. You can just turn up and nominate whoever you like to receive a key
How do I get hold of a key and is there any information on which sites across Birmingham and Solihull they give access to?
In a free ceremony, anyone will be able to award the Key to the City to whoever they want, for whatever reason – from thanking them for being a good friend or partner to wearing great shoes. Then they have until August 7 to explore the locations.
These include access to a Harry Potter-like secret entrance at Platform One of New Street Station, the 18thfloor terrace at 103 Colmore Row and hidden artwork behind a door at the Ikon Gallery. They can also open Northfield Community Garden, observe prayers at Green Lane Masjid and unlock a door in the brick arch over the canal at 230-year-old Minworth Green Bridge at the city’s edge.
The key comes with a passport revealing the full list of locations. Recipients could get a new perspective on a sporting venue or after-hours access to familiar public places such as Touchwood Shopping Centre, plus the right to open display cases and rooms across the city.
There is no need to register in advance for the key exchange, which takes place from 11am to 7pm, every day until June 5 and then from Wednesdays to Sundays. Just turn up in pairs or solo to be partnered up.
So what has artist Paul Ramírez Jones said about the Key to the City project?
The idea for the project came to Paul 12 years ago and was inspired by his fascination with keys and how they can be used to negotiate public and private space.
Paul first held Key to the City in his home city of New York in 2010, opening places from a hidden door in The Brooklyn Museum to gates on the George Washington Bridge. Birmingham will be the second host of Key to the City.
“Only Birmingham and New York are crazy or brave enough to tackle it!” laughs Paul.
“The way I work is to think of an idea that’s completely impossible and fantastical, then pare it down to something practical and within budget, but which still has the magic you need for a public project to capture people’s imagination. One such first impossible thought was ‘Why don’t we make a key that will open the cage to the lions in the zoo?’.
“Fierce have been fantastic to work with to bring the project to Birmingham. They’ve introduced me to wonderful spaces like the tunnel beneath New Street Station. There’s something very Harry Potterish about that, the city extending under our feet via a secret door on Platform One.
“Some people will want to be competitive and tick off every location, but I think it’s more than a game. Having a key might make you notice more about what is closed to us and why. Ultimately I hope people think ‘Why are we so afraid of each other?’”
Where have all the keys come from?
Key to the City is sponsored by Yale, which has been making all the keys at its factory in Portobello, Willenhall and fitting the special locks. The key is a master one which opens padlocks, door locks and display cases.
Fierce has been trying to bring Key to the City to Birmingham for 10 years but such a large-scale project needed major funding. Now it’s happening in Fierce’s 25th anniversary year thanks to the £12m cultural festival around the Commonwealth Games.
What else have the Key to the City project organisers said about it?
Artistic director Aaron Wright says: “We have had more than 200 conversations in order to get 21locations. The project captures people’s imaginations and many places were keen to be involved, but encountered health and safety, insurance and security issues. One site we really wanted but which didn’t work out was a secret tasting room at the Cadbury factory.
“It’s often easier if places have 24/7 security, such as Touchwood Shopping Centre in Solihull. That’s built on a public right of way so they keep it open late for people to walk through. But the Key to the City will open it between midnight and 6am.
“We wanted sites which pose a question or have a unique perspective, and places you wouldn’t normally see which are right under your nose. The key has an interesting psychological effect, giving the holder a sense of power.
“Most journeys in Birmingham happen around where you live or from your suburb to the centre. We’re giving people the motivation to explore other parts of the city, and it’s as much about the journeys as the destinations.”
Louisa Davies, senior producer of Birmingham 2022 Festival, says: “We commissioned Key to the City because there’s often a lot of activity in city centres during festivals, but we want events to happen all over Birmingham and beyond.
“We loved the idea of thousands of people going on adventures in their own city during the Birmingham 2022 Festival. It feels like it shouldn’t be allowed, and there’s something about that that’s really exciting. I love the sense of ownership the key gives and the democratising of an honour.”
Don’t miss your chance to get a Key to the City. Where will yours take you? For more information on Key to the City visit birmingham2022.com/festival
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