Written by Claire L. Lanier
During the heated 2016 election, New York artist Matthew “Levee” Chavez famously started the “sticky note project” in the Union Square subway station in Manhattan. Armed with nothing more than some pens and sticky notes, Levee encouraged passersby to write down their emotions surrounding the election and post them on the wall.
Subway Therapy, as it’s officially called, amassed more than 20,000 sticky notes along the station’s walls, growing far larger than Levee anticipated. Here at the New-York Historical Society, we saw an opportunity to preserve a moment in time—through our History Responds program, our staff works to collect items significant to major moments in history as they happening. So we worked with Levee, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the MTA to collect and preserve a selection of sticky notes from Union Square. To continue the conversation, we created our own installation inspired by Subway Therapy on the glass wall at our front entrance, Message for the President-Elect.
As we explore the meanings and functions of democracy and the presidency in our new initiative, The Presidency Project, what role does Subway Therapy and our installation Messages for the President-Elect serve in giving voice to the People? What can we learn from preserving ephemeral objects during a controversial time?
I chatted with Matthew to learn about his experience with Subway Therapy, first curious why he thinks people responded so strongly the concept. “I think it was really simply and just really easy,” he says. “People could spontaneously participate in art therapy in a quick way.” This notion of naming emotions as a therapeutic action spoke to him: “When you write something with your hand, there’s something very different that happens, physiologically in your mind – it helps you to think about what’s happening,” he said. “Plus it gave everyone an opportunity to connect with their community.”
The sticky notes as a whole irrefutably record not just thoughts, but strong emotions. How did Matthew handle facing those types of responses? “A lot of people were really angry – just angry. People were on fire. It’s hard to not channel that fire at whoever will listen, and since I was there listening, a lot of people would yell at me, get really upset.” But he found the experience productive, and he encouraged those who were upset to start conversations, to read other peoples’ responses, and to confront their own emotions by expressing them on paper. “It’s not just about Hillary and it’s not just about Trump, it’s about stress relief,” he says. “It’s about that connection. It’s not about complaining [but] if someone complains about something and someone else can identify with that complaint, that’s great. This is really important for conversation, and that’s ones of the pillars of democracy.”
A response in the heat of the moment may serve to be therapeutic in the moment, but what’s the merit in saving these responses in the long-term? For Matthew, one reason is that our modern culture needs permanence. “So much of our culture is real fast—there it is, there it goes and I forgot about it. I just don’t think that’s a great way to exist, to learn, to continue good work,” he says. “If something’s really amazing and it helps people to learn, why wouldn’t you want to keep that going? I think the New-York Historical Society is invested in that, and I’m invested in that, and that’s why it’s really important to save them.”
Indeed, in-the-moment items can provide a discernible memory of the past, which isn’t always concrete. Often we think of history as static—as a series of facts written in a book. But history and the study of history is fluid, contextual, and interpretive. Historians discover new information all the time that change our views of past legislation, past events, even past presidents; sometimes research can demonize the figures in our past, while other times, it can redeem them. Either way, as research evolves, so does our understanding of the present and future since historical objects can offer evidence of societal decisions and emotions.
That’s one reason that collecting objects as moments in time occur is so important. Items like sticky notes capture the voice of, if not an era, at least a moment in our nation’s history, and future Americans will have a resource for understanding the response to the controversial 2016 election, including expectations Americans have for their president, contemporary political issues important to the electorate, and even vernacular phrases of the time. Moreover, they may offer a perspective on how those responses influenced the future.
Unquestionably, American history changes through time. But one constant that has been true since our nation’s inception is that democracy does not just allow for participation from the People—it demands it. Whether you’re excited or disappointed by today’s inauguration, we encourage you to share your thoughts all weekend long at the installation in our entryway. All the sticky notes posted will be preserved in our collection—capturing the joy, fear, sadness, elation, neutrality, and every other emotion felt by Americans during the election and the presidential transition. We invite you to share your voice and become a part of history.
Messages for the President-Elect will be on display through Sunday, January 22, 2017. No admission is required to post a message. Learn more.