Post-it notes filled the white walls of a small, crowded building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the third week of January. “Trump is just a tiny footnote in the story of our country,” one read. “Keep fighting to be happy,” read another note nearby, as well as “Love Trumps Fear.” Others reacted to specific sections of President Trump’s onslaught of early executive orders with statements like, “You don’t need a wall. You already have one enclosing your mind.”
They were part of a pop-up Post-it exhibit, a follow-up to artist Matthew “Levee” Chavez’s “Subway Therapy” project in the Union Square subway station in November. The original was designed for people to express how they felt post-election. In a city where only 18 percent of votes went to Trump, many of the messages on the subway wall were filled with grief, rage, and a dystopian view of the future.
The general tone of the Post-its at the pop-up were the same. But the pop-up event was significantly different from “Subway Therapy” in one crucial way: It was hosted by a corporate sponsor, none other than Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker.
Political opposition has shown itself in many ways in recent weeks, yet few alcohol companies have clearly chosen a side. Anheuser-Busch is emphasizing immigrants in their Super Bowl commercials, and Patron warned of price hikes if a tax were put on Mexican imports. Johnnie Walker, though, is sponsoring outright free expression. At the pop-up event, they put the brand name right next to Post-it notes that say “Fuck Trump” — not a small statement to make against a president eager to lash out on Twitter against anyone who opposes him (full disclosure: Johnnie Walker’s parent company Diageo is a VinePair investor).
The Scotch brand hosted the event as part of their “Keep Walking America” advertising campaign, which features videos with patriotic themes and tag lines like “This land was made for the optimists, the ones who break barriers and embrace diversity.” At the viewing I attended on Jan. 30, the money behind the event was a far cry from the organic uprising of the original “Subway Therapy.” Scotch flowed freely, and Chicano Batman, an LA-based soul band, played live music. People stuck their thoughts on the wall while carrying custom cocktails and Blue Label neat. Still, the message rang true.
Not all the Post-its were against Trump. Some criticized dissenters for not sticking together. Others took a route similar to the presidential administration with messages like “the media is the most corrupt.” But they were clearly not in the majority at that specific pop-up, nor did they appear to be in line with Johnnie Walker’s thinking.
“For nearly 200 years, personal and cultural progress have been the foundation of Johnnie Walker and will continue to be so in the future,” Stephanie Jacoby, vice president of Johnnie Walker North America, tells VinePair. “The ‘Keep Walking America’ campaign, and our work with Chicano Batman to reinterpret Woody Guthrie’s iconic ‘This Land is Your Land,’ is a way to draw attention to the many cultures that positively contribute to our society. This event was a forum for people to express their own interpretation of progress.”
Johnnie Walker knew which political side they aligned with by partnering with Chavez. They also knew what they were getting into with their band choice, Chicano Batman, who opened their set that night with their own rendition of “This Land is Our Land,” then followed up with three more songs, some in Spanish. Pictures and video of the band members drinking Johnnie Walker played behind them. Just before their set was over, the lead singer walked out into the crowd.
“Reach out and embrace each other,” he said. “We are the same. We are the same. Reach out because we are all we’ve got, everybody. We are all we’ve got!”
Attending the exhibit gave me one more chance to wear my feelings on a Post-it. My first experience was an emotional roller coaster in Union Square with my girlfriend, mom, and sister shortly after the election. They were in the city for Thanksgiving, and all of our emotions were still raw. This time was different. I felt reinforced that I’m not alone as I left my words on a Post-it for a second time.