The Walker Art Center's Internet Cat Video Festival began last summer as a bit of an experiment, to see if people would show up to a public exhibition of short videos they'd normally watch alone on a computer or smartphone.
The 2012 show was a resounding success: An estimated 10,000 people gathered in Minneapolis on the lawn at the Walker for the event. This year, organizers moved it to the Minnesota State Fair and last night the audience followed.
As the sun set and a cool breeze drew in the scent of a thousand deep fryers to the Grandstand enclosure, the screens blazed forth with cat videos. And the crowd had a blast.
You may have seen some of the videos already. There's the cat that squeezes through a tiny opening to get entirely inside an earthenware urn.
Or the feline that slides all the way down the support post of a basketball goal. There's also the keyboard cat. A few are known by name, including the now famous black and white cat, Henri, le chat noir. More Brie than cheese curd, his existential angst has been the subject of several short black and white films -- narrated, naturally, in French.
The human behind Henri is Will Braden of Seattle, the winner of the Walker's 2012 festival Golden Kitty award. To give you an idea of just how big this whole thing has become, Braden said in the year since walking away with the cat video version of the Oscar, he's been able to quit his day job and live off Henri's largesse.
"My business cards literally say I make cat videos," Braden said. I'm full time in the Henri and the pet video business. Henri has a store online. Henri has a book out now. And so from all these things collectively together, it's enough to make a living."
Braden, who won last year's people' choice award, the Golden Kitty, presented this year's award to The Original Grumpy Cat.
Organizers of last year's festival were a bit concerned that people might view the event with derision or irony. But festival juror Jillian Steinhauer says that never happened, and it's just not possible.
"There's a lot of ironic enjoyment of stuff, and sort of a distancing effect that happens, and I think you can't be ironic about cat videos. It's totally in earnest, because they're so ridiculous," she said. "There's something nice and refreshing about that."
From the millions of online hits some cat videos get, it's obvious they've been popular since the dawn of YouTube and cell phone video cameras. But are they art? Festival organizer Scott Stulen of the Walker Art Center said that's a question he gets a lot.
"My stock answer, which maybe I've said too much is 'I don't care,'" he said. "But maybe the more truthful answer is some are and some aren't like everything."
But if you insist on a higher-minded artistic message from this cat video film festival, Stulen said it is something of a commentary on the loneliness of our plugged-in society.
"We feel even more connected by the technology, but in some ways we feel more distant from one another," he said. "I think there's that interesting dichotomy and with this festival, it's kind of flipping it back. We're showing videos people have seen many times, but they've seen them alone on their phone. And instead, they're sharing this and seeing this in a collective environment, where they feel like they really are sharing this experience together, and that's why it's different."
That aspect of it was especially important to Cinnamon Whaley of Minneapolis. Whaley came with her cat-loving grandmother who does not have Internet at home.
"Being with my grandmother and seeing her reaction to these is so much more fun than the girls in the office. The people who don't get to witness this every day. I think that is more special than simply getting it off the Internet. It's getting it to the people who don't get it every day."
The Internet Cat Video Festival has become so popular, the Walker is helping to stage similar events around the world. Next month it'll be in San Francisco, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Northern Ireland.
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