A Dispatch From the Walker Art Center's Internet Cat Video Festival

Culture and technology.
Aug. 31 2012 8:14 AM

Apocalypse Meow

A dispatch from the Walker Art Center's Internet Cat Video Festival.

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Photograph by Rachel Joyce.

MINNEAPOLIS—For some 12 millennia, humans have sought the company of domesticated cats. We feed them, shelter them, and love them. In return, they jump headfirst into empty grocery bags.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

This ancient bargain lay at the heart of the Walker Art Center's first-ever Internet Cat Video Festival. Yes, the renowned modern art museum dedicated an entire evening to the public display of cats doing stupid stuff. Demand was evidently strong: After soliciting crowdsourced nominations, the museum received 10,000 submissions. Festival mastermind Katie Hill watched every single one, eventually boiling them down into 65 minutes of concentrated kitty shenanigans.

Asked what sort of aesthetic principles guided her in this process, Hill replied, "It's like any other curation. You examine how form and content interact. You look for what's new and unique in the genre. If you watch enough shaky camera phone videos of cats, you start to see the distinctions."

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As dusk descended on a lovely late-summer evening, Minnesotans settled onto the museum's lawn, awaiting the outdoor screening. Hill's former art history professor, Heather Shirey, was among the first on the scene. I asked if she felt that cat videos were a worthy topic for a prestigious museum. "Yes," she said unequivocally. "This is a way to get people talking about material culture. That's what art historians do."

Nearby, a clutch of hipsters in their mid-30s set out blankets and beach chairs. Asked what she anticipated from the evening, one woman answered, "Cat videos. And hilarity." She said her all-time favorite clip was one in which Maru—a Japanese cat legendary among feline video cognoscenti—gets his head tangled up in a length of discarded bubble wrap. "I get entranced by the way Maru moves," she said. "It's the most majestic, poetic movement. Very zen." Across the grass, 7-year-old Arlo said he preferred a Star Wars-themed clip in which some kittens fight with lightsabers. Arlo described this clip at great length and in impressively granular detail, at times re-creating specific paw thrusts and parries.

The vast, sloping lawn became standing room only as showtime approached. The museum had expected 5,000 attendees, and at least that many appeared to arrive. Several had pets in tow. A dude who'd brought his dog was asked if he meant to be provocative. "No," he said, "but I thought it would at least be ironic." 

There was some kitty cosplay. Several adults wore cat ears and face-paint whiskers. One woman had dressed up her orange tabby as Keyboard Cat. He hissed and jabbed at her as she tried to string a tiny cardboard piano around his neck. I asked why she loved cat videos, and she said it was because "the cats in them are so funny. My cat mostly just sits around and sleeps a lot."

Cheltenham the cat dressed as Keyboard Cat.
Cheltenham the cat dressed as Keyboard Cat

Photograph for Slate by Seth Stevenson.

At last, the projector flickered on and the moment arrived—the fierce urgency of meow. The festival kicked off with the comedy category. Among the crowd favorites were "Cat Burp," "Cat Meowing Weird," and "Kittens Riding Vacuum." (These titles also suffice as recaps.)

The drama category was identical to the comedy category except that the clips now employed portentous background music. "Little Cat Provokes Big Cat" garnered a decent amount of applause. But for me the clear winner here was "Stalking Cat," in which a complex narrative unfolds in an apartment hallway. We open on a cat staring at us, motionless, from the far end of a long corridor. The camera pans away for a moment. When it pans back, the cat is once again frozen—but suddenly several paces closer! This ominous pattern repeats until the cat reaches the camera, at which point it forgets why it's there and just sort of freaks out, skittering back down the hall.

The foreign category featured a Spanish gatonovela; a bizarre clip of Japanese people luring small kittens into mixing bowls, and a rather one-note offering titled simply "Cat Scratches Butt."

The art house entrants included "Noodle Cup Heads" (empty instant ramen cups get placed on cats' heads) and "Cat Puke" (a disquieting blur of slo-mo retch shots).

A lifetime achievement award went to "Keyboard Cat." I think we can all agree this was well-deserved and long overdue.

About 50 minutes in, I could sense the crowd beginning to flag. We are accustomed to viewing cat videos in small doses, peeking over our shoulders in case a superior strolls past our cubicle. This kitty saturation level was too much. We couldn't escape. We felt a desperate urge to leap toward freedom—perhaps atop a refrigerator or curtain rod. We were overwhelmed, and calmed ourselves by licking our own knuckles and smoothing the fur on our flanks.

Not a moment too soon, it came time to award the Golden Kitty—the people's choice, as voted by visitors to the Walker's website. Among the more popular nominees: "Cat Mom Hugs Baby Kitten" (which elicited the loudest "awwww" of the evening) and "Maru Slides into Boxes" (which did not disappoint, as Maru did indeed slide into many boxes).

 
But the people chose neither of these. The people chose Henri.
 

"Henri 2, Paw de Deux" is a sequel to a much-loved 2006 video about a black cat who suffers from ennui. In this 2012 follow-up, Henri continues to lament his meaningless existence. He gazes pensively out the window. He expresses contempt for the idiocy all around him. The clip has racked up 3.2 million YouTube views so far.

William Braden who made Henri: Paw De Deux, the winner of the Golden Kitty peoples choice award.
William Braden, who made Henri: Paw De Deux, the winner of the Golden Kitty people's choice award

Photograph by Seth Stevenson.

The Henri films (a third was released a month ago) are the creation of Will Braden, a 32-year-old former film student and wedding videographer from Seattle. Earlier in the day, waiting to go on stage and accept his prize, Braden told me that Henri boasts about 35,000 Facebook fans and 7,000 Twitter followers. Braden grosses $1,000 a week selling Henri merchandise. And he just signed a deal with Random House to put out an Henri book next year.

Braden didn't bring Henri with him to Minneapolis, though. "He's not actually anything like his persona," Braden says. "I don't want to ruin the mystique." Alas, sometimes cat life does not imitate cat art.

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