In Universal Keys, five thousand “universal” handcuff keys hang on a wall in a formation that creates an optical illusion of two interlocking links. Visitors are invited to take a key for personal use thereby deconstructing the links over the course of the exhibition.
Perhaps it is the illusion of control and liberation that first gave rise to the escape acts popularized by Houdini and other magicians. In escapology, or the art of self-liberation, the illusion of overcoming an insurmountable restriction is at the core of the performance. Although Houdini performed numerous escapes from a variety of restraints, handcuff escapes continue to appeal to audiences seeking their own cathartic release from authoritarian control.
While the free public distribution of universal handcuff keys may suggest the potential for a public that is universally free, the illusory quality of the installation equally suggests that it may take more than a key to break free from the biopolitical controls that stem from the class contradictions that criminalize many in the first place. Offering visitors their own handcuff key invites the potential for accomplishing their own self-liberation. Although it is completely legal to purchase, own, and carry a handcuff key in most countries, possession of such a key is also sure to invite scrutiny. While some will assert that it will allow criminals the ability to escape, others will insist that people at large have been routinely criminalized yet possess the keys to their own liberation.
Similarly, notions of security and threat are seen as linked to our collective desires for freedom and safety as they form two parts of the same illusion. Does possession of a universal key truly enable the beholder? Or, does it simply make visible the material strengths and weaknesses of state power? In what context might such a key open up new possibilities for understanding power relations? Ultimately, these are questions to be answered by those who hold the keys.
Universal Keys was originally commissioned by STUK for Artefact 2017: The Act of Magic, curated by Karen Verschooren & Ils Huygens in Leuven, Belgium.