Essays

Why Watching Cat Videos with 10,000 People Matters

The Grandstand filling up with people early in the night (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Grandstand filling up with people early in the night (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

A week ago Wednesday night, I sat down in a green metal chair at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand and watched an hour and a half of internet cat videos on a giant screen alongside 10,000 people. When this little guy licked a vaccum cleaner, 10,000 of us chuckled together; when these sad cats lamented their plight, we all LOLed; when “Lil Bub & Friendz” came on, we cooed over her sweetness. In fact, earlier in the night, when the real Lil Bub had come onstage, after co-host Julie Klausner had asked us to be relatively quiet so as not to frighten her, we all held our breath. Collectively, we avoided loud applause or cheering, and we watched the sweet and royally abnormal Lil Bub attempt to meet another, slightly less abnormal celebrity feline, Grumpy Cat.

Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub "meet" onstage (click to enlarge)
Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub “meet” onstage (click to enlarge)

Unsurprisingly, the two cats really couldn’t care less about meeting each other. It was a great stunt, one that likely got people into the bandstand (tickets cost $20, with half going to fair admission, half to the festival), but for the most part, cats don’t like hanging out with other cats. People, on the other hand, do like hanging out with other people. And that’s largely what the Internet Cat Video Festival, now in its second year, is about. (Full disclosure: I was a juror for the festival.) “This really isn’t about cats,” organizer Scott Stulen said during his pre-show introduction. “It’s about watching cat videos together. We take the internet offline.”

In this sense, the Internet Cat Video Festival — Cat Vid Fest for short — is similar to lots of other cultural experiences: going to a concert and dancing with strangers, attending a play and sharing emotional reactions with unfamiliar seat-mates, interacting with and responding to a performance artist in the midst of a crowd. Common wisdom has it that as we spend more and more time alone on the internet these days, we hunger for these kinds of communal events where we can have real, live, unironic experiences. That may explain some of the massive popularity of Cat Vid Fest — or maybe people really just love cats.

A cat sculpture made of butter!
Julie Klausner talks to the woman who made that amazing cat butter sculpture.

There’s no denying the latter, given the amount of cat costumes, T-shirts, leggings, dresses, photos, buttons, paintings, crop art, and more that I saw last Wednesday. Cats may once have been simple housepets, eaters of mice and good for a cuddle, but they’ve since become a cultural phenomenon, like twerking or manga.

An artist paints a cat-unicorn (click to enlarge)
An artist paints a cat-unicorn (click to enlarge)

The thing is, cultural phenomena, when they exist online, live comfortably in the milieu of the internet. The web is such a bizarre place, almost anything goes in some corner of it. But translated into real life, these phenomena can get really weird. Cats are no exception.

At the festival, cat weirdness struck me as mostly similar to, say, Comic Con weirdness: people get dressed up and go somewhere they can hang out with others who share their obsession. I adore these types of events, ones that open up an IRL space for people to bask in their idiosyncratic interests.

Posing with life-size Lil Bub
Posing with life-size Lil Bub
This woman is dressed like the cat in the shark costume in the Roomba cat video.
This woman is dressed like the cat in the shark costume in the Roomba cat video.

But there’s another branch of the weirdness, wherein cats become celebrity brands. I find celebrity brands strange enough when it comes to humans, who at least have the ego and wherewithal to drive their own operations; with celebrity cat owners and video creators, the people aren’t even the famous ones, and of course the cats don’t know what the hell is going on. “I imagine it’s very satisfying that the cats have no idea how famous they are,” Julie Klausner remarked at one point during the festival.

The cat book signing
The cat book signing at the Walker

The day after Cat Vid Fest, the Walker Art Center, which is home to the Open Field program that spawned the festival, hosted a related book signing. It featured three books “by” Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, and Henri, Le Chat Noir. Henri was not on hand, but the other two were. Lil Bub was usually in the arms of her owner, Mike Bridavsky, while Grumpy Cat sat lazily in a small, ovular bed, looking well, grumpy. Fans lined up around two corners of the building’s hallways, to the point where some people must have waited at least an hour for an autograph (paw-ograph?). Maybe they should have received complimentary Grumppuccinos, Grumpy Cat’s new coffee drink.

People getting their books signed and taking photos with Grumpy Cat (click to enlarge)
People getting their books signed and taking photos with Grumpy Cat (click to enlarge)

It may very well be this type of thing that divides Minneapolis art worlders into two camps: the pro- and the anti-Cat Vid Fest. That is, at least, the impression I got during my visit — that some people at the Walker and in Minneapolis are slightly horrified or dismayed by the festival and its creation at the hands of an art museum, while others champion or welcome it. When I agreed to speak separately to two reporters from a local news outlet about the festival, both asked me, rather exasperatedly, if cat videos are art. (My answer: it’s a trick question.)

When I think back to the book signing and cringe a little, I understand how the opposing camp must feel. But when I think back to the festival itself, it’s hard not to agree entirely with Stulen’s remarks that evening onstage. “The question isn’t, ‘why would the Walker Art Center do a cat video festival?’” he said. “It’s ‘why wouldn’t the Walker do a cat video festival?’” I can’t really come up with an agreeable answer to that. If you want your contemporary art museums to do more than show the private collections of rich individuals, engaging with contemporary visual culture seems like a good place to go.

A band playing in the Cat Vid Fest preshow
A band playing in the Cat Vid Fest preshow

Does that mean the Walker should spend all, or even a large part, of its resources on Cat Vid Fest? No. But they’ve managed to reach 10,000 people — 10,000 people who, when they became impatient with how long the pre-show was running at the Grandstand, began chanting “Cats! Cats! Cats! Cats!” There was no question of why people had come. They wanted to watch cats do obviously idiotic and hilarious and adorable things, just like I did. And though it sounds cheesy, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had that much fun in public. The cat phenomenon may be silly, but it’s also very real.

The Internet Cat Video Festival 2013 took place August 28 at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand.

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