Everyone has a favorite Internet cat video. Whether it’s a classic like Keyboard Cat, a meme like Grumpy Cat, or something more elaborate—like the predominantly Japanese obsession with Scottish Fold kittens—it’s hard to partake in online life without encountering a feline on film. But what happens when cat videos move from URL to IRL? That’s the question that today’s Internet Cat Video Festival answers.
If someone asked me to define a typical cat person, I’d be hard pressed to come up with an answer. From the Egyptian cult of Bastet, the cat goddess, to the perennial children’s favorite “Tom and Jerry,” cats permeate human culture. Even physicists can’t resist playing with the feline form, as Schrödinger’s cat could attest.
Nonetheless, the one place I’d hardly expect cat fans to congregate is Warsaw, a Polish bar and rock club located in the hipster enclave of Williamsburg. After all, a venue that describes itself as “where pierogies meet punk” doesn’t exactly seem apt for such notoriously skittish animals and their devoted admirers.
Scott Stulen, producer of the festival, would disagree. A curator for Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, Stulen came up with the idea for a cat video festival last year, while working on a program experimenting with crowdsourced content and social media.
“I thought it would be interesting to take content that primarily exists online that we experience as a solitary activity, like watching YouTube videos while sitting with your phone or at your computer, and put it in more of a festival environment,” Stulen said. “Cat videos seemed like the one of the most prevalent forms of content, and so it was natural for them to be part of that experiment.”
Stulen began by organizing an event based around the live screening of cat videos, inviting local artists, musicians, and humane societies to an inaugural shindig on the Walker’s Open Field, where they watched an hour of clips similar to the ones that will play at Warsaw on Friday. What Stulen originally planned to be a few hundred people and a few crates of beer blew up after the initial call went viral: 10,000 people descended on the museum’s front lawn on Aug. 31, 2012.
Among those people was William Braden, a Seattle-based filmmaker and owner of Henri, also known as le Chat Noir, an Internet cat famed for his philosophical musings, sardonic humor, and cutting Frenchness. Of course, this is all transmitted through subtitles, since actual speech would insult Henri’s intellectual integrity.
Braden contributed to the first wave of cat videos that blossomed with the genesis of YouTube in the mid-2000s. At the time, social media was limited to email, SMS, and whatever you could embed on your MySpace page, so going viral was an unlikely prospect. It wasn’t until last year—when Braden made a Facebook page for his angsty pet—that the Henri phenomenon took off.
One thing led to another, and soon Henri’s fans were nominating him for the festival’s Golden Kitty Award for best cat video. Without even knowing that he was in the running, Braden bought a ticket for the festival, and, as they say, the rest was history.
It’s this reciprocal relationship with fans that Braden views as integral to the cat video experience. Unlike dog owners, who can meet in dog parks and on the street, cat owners have little opportunity to interact. In his eyes, cat videos are important in that they give cat people a collective experience. When people post videos of cats in silly situations, Braden says, you can enjoy the moment with the knowledge that your cat does the same thing.
The digital age’s impact on the popularity of cat videos is especially apparent for Mike Bridavsky, owner of feline celebrity Lil Bub. Bub, who is attending the Warsaw event, is unique among Internet cats for her “perma-kitten” appearance and distinctive slack jaw, the result of several genetic mutations. After Bridavsky began posting pictures of her online in 2011, her rise to fame was stratospheric.
For Bridavsky, technological advances have been essential in furthering the cat video phenomenon. Not only did Tumblr and the self-proclaimed “front page of the Internet,” Reddit, play a fundamental role in creating Bub’s international following, but Bridavsky also links the rise of affordable smartphones to the ever-growing phenomenon.
“With the advent of digital technology, it’s possible to capture these moments instantly on your phone,” he said. “Previously cats were an introvert’s pet—you’re at home, your cat does something amazing, and you tell your friends, they’re like, ‘Yeah, right.’ Now you can capture this moment and share it with your friends.”
While both Bub and Henri are testaments to cat videos’ ability to create online communities, it might seem surprising that so many people were willing to shell out hard-earned cash to watch clips they could see for free at home in their underwear. The Internet Cat Video Festival was so successful last year that it spawned a 2013-14 tour, starting with an audience of 13,000 in August at the Minneapolis State Fair. Other stops have also included Honolulu, Chicago, and even a trip across the pond to Derry, Northern Ireland.
Braden and Bridavsky have been on the tour. They find its popularity surprising, to say the least.
“I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that people were excited to meet me,” Braden said.
The fans’ reactions have surprised Bridavsky the most.
“At signings, there’s always at least three people who will cry meeting Bub,” he said. “She has a pretty profound effect on people. We’ve had giant tattooed metalheads show up and start crying.”
For Stulen, these interactions are the end goal. In his opinion, the more our world becomes digitized, the more people seek Facebook likes and view counts over actual interpersonal engagement. The joy of these festivals is translating something from online into offline life, rendering the digital space personal and tangible. The cat festival isn’t just a fun way to unite over a love of furry friends—it’s a revolutionary resistance to the increasing social alienation caused by Web 2.0.
“People are longing to come together in a real space and connect, not just connecting on their phones and sharing it but really being in a moment where you had to be there and experiencing something that is joyful,” Stulen said. “It’s easy to be either really serious in our daily lives or layer every bit of humor with irony, and with this, it’s something that’s far more real and raw.”
Indeed, ever since they started touring, Braden and Bridavsky have been reaping the benefits. Braden was recently invited to chat with an east coast university’s philosophy club, while Bridavsky described how women give him their numbers at signings.
I personally love cats. One of the hardest parts of leaving London for Columbia was saying goodbye to Rex, whom I’d fed, stroked, and cuddled since he was a kitten. But even I can’t explain what exactly it is about cat videos that elicits such strong reactions.
As experts in the field, Stulen, Braden, and Bridavsky all came up with similar answers. For them, it’s not just that cats are cute and fluffy: It’s that they have a sense of unpredictability and quirkiness that allows humans to project narratives onto them. While a dog demands your attention, cats are aloof and reserved, so when they do something clumsy or silly, it’s all the more funny.
When it comes down to it, whether you believe these festivals to be a fight for IRL over URL or just a get-together for those who find whiskered faces adorable, there’s a growing phenomenon that’s here to stay. Whether you’re attending today’s show or not, it can provide catnip for thought the next time a four-pawed friend pops up on your newsfeed. There’s more to these videos than you think.
The Internet Cat Video Festival takes place Friday evening at 7 p.m. at Warsaw, 261 Driggs Ave., Brooklyn. Tickets are currently sold out.