Jay Katelansky on PhantomNegro and seeking new narratives

The Madison-based artist talks with us ahead of a November 5 panel discussion at UW-Madison.

  "Won't U," an installation by Jay Katelansky.

"Won't U," an installation by Jay Katelansky.

“What is the solution for constantly being watched when no one sees you at all?”

Madison-based artist Jay Katelansky poses this question in one of her striking text pieces, written in white tape on a white wall. The inquiry keeps returning to my mind as I consider how my conversation with Katelansky about her work as a dual MA/MFA student at UW-Madison relates to the current state of racial inequality in Madison. Just a couple weeks before Katelansky and I met, the Wisconsin State Journal reportedthat blacks are arrested at over ten times the rate of whites in this city, though blacks make up only 7% of the population. Shortly after we met, Fusion reported that approximately one in three of the black children living in Madison were arrested in a single year. Though it’s been two years since the Race to Equity report was released, highlighting racial disparities in Dane County, I wonder: to what extent are white residents of Madison (a category I fall into) willing to see inequalities represented in these incriminating statistics? To really see our neighbors of color? To engage in an open discourse free of presuppositions and suspicions?

Katelansky created the mysterious, magical character of the PhantomNegro as a conduit for opening this discourse. Phantom is a hero and a trickster, and they transcend time, gender, and shape. Phantom could exist anywhere, at any time, and they do exist and matter here in Madison. For the past year, Katelansky has been “seeking Phantom,” documenting her search in paintings, collages, videos, and other mediums, most of which are installation or performance-based.

Katelansky will be discussing PhantomNegro as part of the Center for Visual Culture’s panel discussion, Visual Grammars For Seeing Blackness, which will be held on November 5 in Elvehjem Hall, Room L140.Katelansky’s lecture is titled “a BLACK amorphous thing: how phantom shifts the narrative.” Nicole Fleetwood, Associate Professor of American Studies at Rutgers University, and Herman S. Gray, Professor of Sociology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, will also be participating in the panel. I recently visited Katelansky at her studio in the Art Lofts to talk about her work and her experience as a student in Madison.

Tone Madison: Can you tell me about the idea behind the “Jay Seeks Phantom” project and what inspired this theme in your work?

Jay Katelansky: I’ve been making work around blackness for a while; it started maybe in my junior year in undergrad [at Moore College of Art and Design]. I was in Philadelphia, and the makeup of Philly is way different than it is here, and I guess I’ve never been in a space like Madison until I moved here. I’m from suburbia of New Jersey, but I still went to a predominantly black and Hispanic high school. Even in Philly, going to a predominantly white, all women’s college, I still lived in West Philly. I still left that space every day. Being in Madison, I started making all this really anxious work about me feeling really displaced here. This work wasn’t really going anywhere; it just was running around in a circle.

So, my second year here I developed the person or the being that is Phantom. PhantomNegro is what I use as a vehicle to discuss the dehumanization of black people. “Jay Seeks Phantom” is me seeking this character/person/being, and they exist in past, present, and future. So I’m constantly on the search for who has been in contact with Phantom. Me “seeking Phantom” is a series of narratives of me interviewing make-believe people who can’t exist in society.

Tone Madison: I first found out about your work when I read the news about the installation piece you did with Alex Jackson being removed from the UW Humanities Building. Was that piece the first appearance of Phantom?

Jay Katelansky: No, that wasn’t my first Phantom. Me and Alex have been working on very similar tropes for a while. We were talking about making work together but we hadn’t been able to get it together. He works on a character called the Magical Negro, and we always talked about, “what happens if [the Magical Negro and PhantomNegro] met, what would that look like?” That [installation] was the first time they met in the same space, so that was the first narrative space that we collaborated on. That happened in the winter [in December of 2014]. The idea’s been stemming since undergrad, but last year was the first time I really sat down and was really serious about making the work.

Tone Madison: You touched on this earlier, but do you want to speak more to how living in Madison for school has influenced your work?

Jay Katelansky: Yeah, I just feel like this is a place that everyone talks about as being very liberal, and that things don’t happen here. But they do. Even before coming here, I had friends here because of social media. I have a friend group here that are poets or artists who are brown, and they came [to UW-Madison] because of First Wave. And I remember them posting about the Spiderman being hung on Langdon Street a year before I came here. And then once I came to Madison, the first week I was here I was stopped by a police officer in the middle of the day, just across the street from [the Art Lofts]. He was asking me if I was homeless, continuously. I was like, “no, I’m a student, I have groceries and an iPhone in my hand.” Not that I should have to explain and validate why I’m walking down the street in the middle of the day. So that anxious feeling of being here, feeling really Other. In all the other spaces, no matter where I was, I always got to leave that space. And here, there is no leaving. There is no break. It’s like every single day. And I was living down Langdon Street, so I would have to walk down Langdon Street every single day, and I just felt crazy.

That’s where most of my work stems from, is from the feeling of not being able to have a discussion. Always being shut down because of this place being “so liberal.” And so I think creating Phantom and creating this narrative allowed it to be open. People could see it as fiction even though it’s not. And, you know, there’s a downside to that too, but it also allowed me to discuss it. And then my [Masters of Art degree qualifier] show happened—not on purpose—but it happened the week after Tony Robinson [was killed by Madison police], which opened the conversation up a lot more. I think it made people be like, “oh yeah, this happens here too.” As unfortunate as that was, it was also a moment of realization.

Tone Madison: Your MA qualifier show, “Wont u celebrate: antihero the coming out” focused a lot on these very serious issues of black people who have been killed by police or other authority figures, but you also had all these elements of a party. There were balloons saying, “won’t u celebrate,” and a phantom’s face printed on a birthday cake. What led you to this juxtaposition?

Jay Katelansky: The thing is, is that black death happens all around us and making the work becomes really heavy, and you don’t really get to get out of that heaviness. It becomes very stagnant, and you don’t really get to move from it. That becomes problematic, especially in this space, because you don’t actually get to leave. So, you’re continuously working around these tropes, and then you go outside, and I’ll get called the n-word, or I’ll get stopped by a police officer. I don’t get to leave, besides going to my apartment and getting to de-stress.

The “wont u celebrate” quote comes from a Lucille Clifton poem that says something like, “won’t you celebrate because every single day something’s tried to kill me and has failed.” [The balloons] were weighted down by Arizona iced tea cans that represented what Trayvon Martin had on him when he was killed. But it also represents a hood classic, which was food I served at the the show. So hood classics like Hot Fries, Kool-Aid, sweet tea, the Arizona tea cans, just things that—obviously they’re not healthy, and obviously they have a lot to do with health risks that black people have—but it’s also part of our community, it’s part of what we’ve always had access to, and it’s a celebration. As much as it’s bad for us, it reminds us of home. We’re always told to celebrate because we’re still here, but it’s also like, why do we constantly have to celebrate the fact that we’ve still made it?

[My friends and I] were all at Just Bust! [an open mic event hosted by First Wave] the night Tony Robinson was killed. It was a lot, because all these people were talking about black death, and how it awful it is being in Madison, and all of a sudden we just got the news, in the middle of the event, that Tony Robinson was killed. And they said, “let’s take a moment of silence.” And then they said, “now let’s clap, because we’re still here.”

Literally the next day I had to put the order in for the cake, and I was like, “This is too much. This is so much.” The cake also represents—if you’ve ever seen them—the airbrushed shirts that were really popular when people passed away, you got the airbrushed shirts, like, “rest in peace.” So it was playing on that whole idea, but it was a cake. So as the week [of the show] went on, the cake smelled sweeter, but the smell became—I became nauseous, having to walk in that room every day and smell it. It just got stronger and stronger and stronger. It’s supposed to be something appealing to bring you in, but also to be like, “look, these are the things that are happening.” I feel like in a space like this, sometimes those are the only ways that I can get people to look at my work, is to have sort of a deceiving quality to it. Phantom’s a very trickster type of character, so it flows very well with Phantom.

Tone Madison: There’s definitely an element of mischief or magic in the Phantom character. Is that the idea you’re going for as you move into this “hoodwinked” theme?

Jay Katelansky: We just picked our MFA shows, and, luckily, I got the last spot in the Art Lofts which happens to be April Fool’s Day, which is very perfect. I’ve been working on the concept of “hoodwinked” for a little bit, and the idea that phantom is an anti-hero—but is also a hero, but is, you know, hard to pinpoint because they do all these things that we don’t quite understand. And it’s not necessarily for us to understand. They have a reason behind it, and it’s sort of like we’re just following what they’re doing and trying to see why, I guess. Anti-heroes are normally the trickster. Some people see them as a hero, some people see them as a villain, and I think that allows me to further the discourse between different people, because not everyone has the same viewpoint from their race, gender, or class. They all see things in a different way. And then “hoodwinked,” more so, is to not necessarily only talk about the mischief of Phantom but also the place Phantom occupies and how that affects the environment. What does the environment look like, and how do the people co-exist with phantom? How do they exist within that?