The Sincere Internet Cat Video Festival

by Paddy Johnson on March 9, 2013 SXSW

Last summer, The Walker Art Center hosted “The Internet Cat Video Festival”, the most attended event in its 86 year history. It attracted some 10,000 people to their screening, press from around the world, and continues to account for more than 5 percent of the Walker’s web traffic. It also got festival organizers Scott Stulen and Katie Hill a presentation at SXSW yesterday.

“All audiences are equal” Stulen told the crowd, as he and Hill discussed the people who attended the festival. There were cat people, dog people, young people, old people. Art people, film people, and regular ol’ people. People who dressed up as cats, people who brought their cats, and according to Jezebel, even people who thought they were cats. There were a lot of people.

While the demographics of the festival are remarkable (and certainly of interest to other democratic art events such Artprize and Serralves’ 40 hour party), the presentation ruminating on them was not without bumps. These ranged from Stulen and Hill’s canned reading of a script, to Stulen’s promo-y description of the Walker as a site for the world’s best boundary-breaking contemporary art (or something like that). This is the kind of meaningless art language museums revel in because it makes art seem daring, but does little to contextualize a cat meme. When we heard that some within this risk-taking museum had problems with the project, it was disappointing to see Stulen use that to support the idea that cat videos are somehow even more avant garde.

Luckily, this didn’t last long. The most important point made wasn’t so much that cat videos are art—Stulen said later that he wasn’t interested in the answer—but that solitary experience of watching a cat video was transformed by the large scale event. In this case, the transformation translated into a wholly unironic festival in which people came together to celebrate the love of their pets.

Already the festival face new challenges in recreating the event. This year, it moves to a larger venue at the Minnesota Grandstand where tickets move from being free to $10. Hill and Stulen, acknowledge the difference, but promise to maintain the integrity they brought to the project last year.

It’s worth noting that the kind of sincerity and passion discussed during the talk rare these days (when I commented on the festival earlier this year, I admittedly offered only semi-ironic statements), and was clearly a driving force for the organizers. This was made evident throughout the presentation but was perhaps made most clear in Hill’s case, when she decided to dedicate a portion of her talk to an argument irrelevant to the event’s organization. We now know that she believes cats are better than dogs. In Stulen’s it was the contextualization of the event within Open Field, a larger program he runs with the tag line, “What we make together.” The program has hosted such diverse groups as Live Action Role Players and an opera for dogs.

Pulling out these moments from the presentation is useful, but ultimately it was the culmulative effect of the presentation that proved most powerful. After all, when Stulen began his talk noting that event was remarkable for its transformation of experience, I thought the point was too obvious to be significant. That proved not to be the case, though, as the presentation closed with “Paw de Deux”, a video of this suffering philosophical cat I had always found a little trite. In this room, with these people, I finally saw its humor and joy.

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