When a friend asked Dorothy Parker how to get rid of a cat, she famously replied, “Have you tried curiosity?”
That would be a bum tip these days, especially in the online universe. It seems that “Millions of Cats,” the classic kids’ book by Minnesota artist Wanda Gag, has infiltrated the Internet and been retitled “Millions of Page Views.”
You can’t swing a virtual dead cat without hitting the latest viral video of a live one, most recently a cat dressed in a shark costume riding a Roomba around a kitchen (for those to whom the appeal of cat videos has remained elusive, there you have it).
Walker Art Center’s second Internet Cat Video Festival, being staged Wednesday at the Minnesota State Fair, is expected to draw well more than the 10,000 people who attended last year’s event outside the Walker. It drew unexpected national and international media coverage — followed, inevitably, by copycat festivals spawned by corporate sponsors eager to lap up some of that attention.
This year’s event, which costs $10 on top of fair admission as opposed to nothing last year, features live music and celebri-cats including Lil Bub; Grumpy Cat; Henri, le Chat Noir (via video only); and our own local hero, the Minneapolis-based shorthair Pudge. The Animal Planet cable network will be there, live-streaming.
And once again the question will be asked — the Walker being, after all, an internationally respected modern art museum — is it art?
“My stock answer is, ‘I don’t care,’ ” said event producer Scott Stulen, a project director for mnartists.org at the Walker. “Last year we were afraid of how it would be perceived by the art world. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Beyond people really loving their pets and tapping into a proven popular genre, it makes the Walker feel relevant in a different way. People are hungry for something that feels real and joyful. Not everything has to be super significant or hipster ironic, shrouded in irony.”
Elsewhere in the art world, the cat is making a more serious pawprint.
New York, for example, just can’t seem to get enough kitty. At the Brooklyn Museum, “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” opened in July and will run for nearly a year. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Balthus: Cats and Girls — Paintings and Provocations” opens in September. And the West Village gallery White Columns recently held a show featuring “cats in residence” on loan from an animal shelter, temporarily housed in artist-designed enclosures. All the orphans were adopted in short order, and the show received rave reviews from critics and the public.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art — which incidentally hired Katie Hill, the former Walker staffer who dreamed up the Cat Video Festival — has a few cats in its own collection, including Francis Jourdain’s “The White Cat” and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s “Winter: Cat on a Cushion.” (Neither work is currently displayed, but prints and drawings are available to view by request in the prints and drawings study.)
“Artists have always been attracted to cats for their ever-changing sensuous lines, the texture of their fur, their often amazing eyes,” said Tom Rassieur, who oversees prints and drawings at the MIA. “It’s the same reason the musical ‘Cats’ is so popular.”
On the subject of cat videos, Rassieur was diplomatic.
“They’re cute; they’re fun,” he said. “Watching them doesn’t demand a lot of the audience.”
Critical celebri-cat mass
The fur-faced celebrities being given marquee billing for this year’s fest include Grumpy Cat, an Arizona-based Siamese whose dwarfism gives her a distinctive permanent frown, and Lil Bub, also a dwarf, whose bulging green eyes, lolling tongue and stunted limbs give her a cartoonish, stuffed-toy appearance.
Henri, le Chat Noir, the ennui-drenched black-and-white star of black-and-white shorts on existential angst and winner of the Golden Kitty Award at last year’s festival, will be there in spirit, represented by his human.
“We’re going to try to break the Internet by getting them all up there onstage together for the first time,” said Stulen, who has brought the festival to several other cities, including Boston, Vienna and Jerusalem. He also spoke on the phenomenon of its popularity at a recent TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference, one of several the nonprofit holds annually to promote new ideas.
The primary explanation is simple, he said: “People didn’t come to just watch cat videos. They came to watch cat videos together.” Playing a part in what they see by voting for their favorite in advance is also part of the appeal, he said: “It’s crowdsourcing content and putting it into a new context.”
Ben Lashes, who “handles” Grumpy Cat, the diva du jour of cat-videoland, is a former singer for a Seattle band. He has presented Grumpy at similar events around the country.
“The vibe is almost like going to a rock concert,” he said. “It’s all about going somewhere to nerd out with other people who want to nerd out and maybe wear costumes.”
He also addressed the “meta” mantle that the fest has assumed. “It’s cool underground pop culture rebelling against normal pop culture, only now it’s become bigger than the normal. Like punk going from the Sex Pistols to Green Day.”
Bigger, and thus no longer underground. While some may kvetch about the event switching to a commercial venue and charging a ticket fee, Stulen says he expects it to be “a break-even venture. The construction at Walker made it not possible to hold it there this year, and I think the spectacle of the fair is fitting. Last year, the scale was so unexpected that people forgave us for not being able to find a parking space. This year, they wouldn’t be so understanding.”
The Walker will keep scheduling the festival as long as public interest justifies it, Stulen said. But at some point, given our collective Internet-induced ADD, cultural fascination with cat videos must peak, then plummet.
Grumpy Cat’s fabricated persona will, no doubt, be relieved — and refuse to show it.