Carlos Garrido Castellano and J. Griffith Rollefson (draft under review)
adjective VULGAR SLANG – wild with excitement or anger.
On 16 June 2018, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released “Apeshit”—a trap-styled hip hop track featuring a chorus of “I can’t believe we made it / Have you ever seen the crowd going apeshit?” The much-commented on music video for the track was framed as a hip hop takeover of the world’s most visited art institution—Paris’s Louvre—featuring pop’s reigning power couple, marketed as “The Carters,” making themselves at home in the museum with a collection of dancers in flesh-colored black, brown, and beige bodysuits. The video was generally received as either a cutting decolonial takedown of this monument to Western civilization or simply the ultimate in money-flaunting bling spectacle. As reportage about the filming and the video’s intimate scenes make clear, the museum was turned into a domestic space that night. Indeed, following the success of the video, AirBnB ran a contest whereby “two lucky people now have the chance to spend the night inside the Paris museum.”
In this article, we argue that Apeshit is not just about being at home in cultural institutions, but rather about how museums are trapping devices, cages, and containers—microcosms of our broader trapping ecosystem. Refusing to understand Apeshit as an experience of entrapment reduced to the specific and specialized space of the museum, in this article we employ multi-modal methodologies combining visual and musical arts perspectives articulated to theorize what happens if we take Apeshit to speak to a more generic condition of entrapment.
The English word “trap” belongs to a particularly rich etymological family including relations to the words: tread, step, stair, and snare. Treads, for example, are kin to traps: to trap and be trapped always invokes the trace of one’s footprint. Traps are also close relatives to stairs: ladders that lure with the promise of ascension. The proximity of entrapment and upward mobility (of professionalism, of consumerism) is suggestive of getting trapped. Yet traps are not simple mechanisms of subjection but, rather, luring engines that always work at a collective level, formalizing and expanding subjection as a general—yet selective—condition of indebtedness. As we will see, in Apeshit, being trapped equals both being lured and luring (alongside) others.
The Oxford English Dictionary entry reads: “trap (n.) “contrivance for catching unawares,” late Old English træppe, treppe “snare, trap,” from Proto-Germanic *trep- (source also of Middle Dutch trappe “trap, snare”), related to Germanic words for “stair, step, tread” (Middle Dutch, Middle Low German trappe, treppe, German Treppe “step, stair,” English tread (v.)).”
By interrogating the track’s “trap” music production and lyrical rhetorics of escape we seek to illustrate how Apeshit destabilizes Enlightenment universalism and its public/private split. Further, the video foregrounds the historical trap of musealized colonial plunder and the Louvre’s labyrinthine, oft-subterranean floor plan, as well as the broader “trappings” of consumption, bourgeois self-making, and aesthetic contemplation. It would be, therefore, misleading to assume that all the references to traps and being trapped in Apeshit univocally refer to the museum as the space of seizure and to institutional power as a capturing force. Apeshit was recorded in the Louvre, the most-visited museum in the world and ground zero for the coupling of the civic and educational aspirations of the Enlightenment and European colonial expansion. If the history of the Louvre is the history of the museum’s public role, then it is interesting to see how Apeshit engages with these elements frantically, luring its audience into a tour that races from Egyptian sculpture and Greek marbles to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and other masterworks of European painting.
Through this tour, the song posits the Louvre and the visual projects of universal culture and colonial plunder as part of a mosaic sketching out the myriad ways in which bodies and subjectivities are formed (become form) through display, by being displayed, and more specifically by being displayed as motionless objects. Yet everything in Apeshit moves frantically, appears in permanent transition, enacts a radical fugitivity, a kind of heresy that cannot be turned into heritage, an escape that is not just spatial but also temporal. As we will see, Apeshit does more than “sampling” canonical works of universal (European) art history, instead making space for alternative aesthetic positionings emerging out of the vulgar act of “going apeshit” with others in unexpected ways, in unusual spaces. At stake, therefore, are the consequences of understanding how and why museums function as traps—from their colonial conception and historical emergence, to their institutional workings and spatial engineering.
What happens if we understand Apeshit as a state of things, as a sort of weather report of how humans and things invest in world-making, in the production of interspecies radical sociality emerging from the fact of being collectively and irredeemably trapped? By following the state of effervescence that Apeshit advances, we argue that only by considering museums and cultural institutions as trap houses within a damaged planetary ecosystem can we imagine radical ways of occupying spaces, being in common, and being at home. The issue is, then, to ask what is at stake in going apeshit? What does an apeshit condition of creating and living render possible?
That museums played a central role in the reproduction of what Ann Laura Stoler calls “imperial formations” is well established. Museums rationalized knowledge production as part of the colonial enterprise and normalized systems of classification and techniques of inventorying that were easily expanded, adapted, and misplaced at a planetary scale. In this article, we elaborate on these imperial formations by positioning the institutional traps at play in Apeshit in counterpoint with the sonics of trap music and the Black performance cultures that animate, enliven, contest, and reconfigure the rarefied and sacralized Western (white) space of the Louvre. As we will see, this music that sounds artistic vulgarity, vacuity, Southern drug culture, its irredeemable Blackness—and, ultimately, its valuelessness—is ostensibly leveraged by these icons of pop royalty, to critique this institution and its Western inheritance. Of course, this critique is not without its own problems of privilege and complicity. Yet, we argue, its emergence in our #RhodesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter moment is revealing in its aesthetic and ideological detail and becomes a telling index of the Enlightenment’s universalist project when read against the political economy of the art world and its capitalist, finance-driven logic. The innumerable traps we encounter in Apeshit are not just snares to be slipped, but stairs to be climbed, money to be made—from the capitalist trappings of the so-called rat race to the fraught legacies of chattel slavery and enduring fugitivities.
In his game-changing Village Voice article, “Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk,” Greg Tate explores these hypocrisies and contradictions through an examination of the controversial—and wildly successful—Black artist. With an eye very much trained on Basquiat’s financial success as central to his controversy, Tate explains the aesthetic stakes of being a “flyboy (trapped) in the buttermilk” thus:
“From the perspective of this split-screen worldview, where learning carries the weight of a revolutionary act and linguistic skills are as prized as having a knockout punch, there are no such things as empty signifiers, only misapprehended ones.”
Yes, Beyoncé and Jay-Z certainly profited heavily from Tiffany’s promotional campaign, but the racial contradictions that the ad forces us to confront should help us shift our focus instead to the systemic regimes of thought that produce such a middle-less discourse. Indeed, the Voice article’s opening pullquote sums up these “split-screen” contradictions of racial capitalism, as Tate explains:
“When Basquiat died last year at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose he was the most financially successful Black visual artist in history and, depending on whether you listened to his admirers or detractors, either a genius, an idiot savant, or an overblown, overpriced fraud.”
The image calls to mind Moten’s critique of Marx’s (impossible) “speaking commodity”—of which Marx writes:
“Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness . . . it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”
Moten critiques Marx’s privileged reading as “a discourse of his own to put into the mouth of dumb commodities before he reproduces what he figures as the impossible speech of commodities.” His point, of course, is that Marx is wrong here: commodities do speak. Chattel slavery made this all-too clear. The fact that, for Marx, the “speaking commodity” figure is impossible, reveals the fundamental flaw of the Enlightenment project. By the rules of Western subjectivity she/it should not exist, but we know she/it does exist because we know chattel slavery and its racist legacy of dehumanization. Be it a table or a fainting couch, the two dancers perform the part of the grotesque “speaking commodity” perfectly. The dancers’ voicelessness throughout the video speaks volumes in this extended break, as we see their Black, Brown, and Beige bodies objectified in the Louvre’s rarefied spaces.
(Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 9; Karl Marx. Capital: A critique of political economy. Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1990 ), 163.)