The Internet wasn’t enough — now cat videos are taking over real-life events

At the cat video festival, in St. Paul, cat tails were not an unusual sight.  CREDIT: Photo by Judy Griesedieck for The Washington Post.)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — What a felicitous night! A legion of exultant fans lay on blankets in the outfield of CHS Field, while thousands more filled the stands, there to participate in one of this region’s grand summer pastimes. Not exactly the beloved state fair, but close.

“Wouldn’t dream of missing it,” Teresa Heselton of Owatonna, Minn., said of her third annual pilgrimage to the event. “This is a really good time.”

Her son, Carson, accompanied her, a pink kitty bed framing his bewhiskered face. It was a look that would appear strange anywhere else, but it won the 13-year-old fleeting celebrity for the evening and a swarm of smartphone snaps.

Heselton and her son were among a crowd of 13,000 enthusiasts who flocked to this new ballpark last week, not for minor-league baseball but for a festival devoted to, wait for it — cat videos. Attendance set a record, for the venue and the Internet Cat Video Festival, now in its fourth purrrr-inducing year.

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The festival highlights videos celebrating cats in all their guises, and beyond — cats as artists, as philosophers, as criminal masterminds (El Gato, not El Chapo), geniuses all.

There are videos documenting cats’ triumph over basically every other living animal — birds, hamsters, dogs (happy, trusting, unwitting dogs), bears (yes, really) and, of course, humans, their loyal supplicants. Cats are the Tom Cruises of online videos, the wily heroes of virtually every story. (The exceptions: Cats being undone by bananas and outwitted by other cats.)

Launched originally as a lark, possibly a one-time summer fling, the Internet Cat Video Festival, like its subject, shows no signs of abating.

Featuring a 70-minute video reel culled from 15,000 international submissions, the event is produced not by some morning radio gabfest but by the venerable Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, one of the nation’s pre-eminent institutions of contemporary art. The selected videos, curated by first “Golden Kitty” winner Will Braden, will travel to other feline-inspired events. Last year’s reel was exhibited in 75 cities, making the Walker festival the Sundance of Internet cat videos.

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Cat video fans are not necessarily the same as actual cat fanciers, but most cat lovers do appear to be rabid fans of the genre. “They make me laugh,” said Karen Sokolowski of nearby Northfield, who arrived for her first festival 4 1/2 hours before the CHS Field gates opened. “And you can’t have enough laughs.” She knows from cats, owning 14.

Fans came dressed as all manner of feline (cute, menacing and fetching being the dominant strains), in cat ears, cat makeup, whiskers and a seemingly endless parade of cat T-shirts: “Hillary Kitten for president” and more salacious examples that cannot be printed here.

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In their gradual, devious, yet inexorable march toward global domination, cat videos have taken over the Internet, free and not-so-free time, and the culture, extending way beyond their customary online cat beds of YouTube and BuzzFeed’s “This Week in Cats.”

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“How Cats Took Over the Internet” is on exhibit at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. Cat videos are being studied, seriously, by academics, most recently by Indiana University’s Jessica Gall Myrick in her paper “Emotion regulation, procrastination, and watching cat videos online: Who watches Internet cats, why, and to what effect?”

Said Myrick, “A lot of people responded that videos made them feel better, happier, more content, more energized, less anxious, less angry, less depleted, less tired.” Naturally, her study also became an Internet sensation.

The festival inspired a forthcoming collection of essays, “Cat is Art Spelled Wrong,” with references to Hegel, Kant and, (begin italics) naturellement (end italics), semiotician Jacques Derrida, diffident cats tending to bring out the French in admirers.

The video festival was conceived as an inexpensive, fun event to bring patrons to the Walker, although, like most cat videos, it has yet to produce a significant monetary return for its host institution. (Tickets were $10 — $8 for Walker members — to cover the cost of renting the field.)

Four years ago, then-Walker program associate Katie Hill, a profound cat lover, suggested a deceptively simple idea: “Let’s show some cat videos on a projector onto a retaining wall for around 50 people.” Later, she upped her estimate to “maybe 500.”

That August afternoon, the highway adjacent to the Walker came to a standstill.

“I was worried,” Hill said. “What if people come, and they don’t like it?”

An estimated 10,000 people covered the Walker’s Open Field, home to its summer outdoor programming (now under construction, hence this year’s move to CHS Field.) The general consensus: More, please.

Now the Internet Cat Video Festival is its own institution, more populist than aesthetic, faithful to the homegrown nature of the medium. Anyone can enter, anyone can vote. Entries range from amateur to highly accomplished, said Seattle filmmaker Braden, who hosted the show and selected the five finalists. Experienced directors, often more interested in craft than content, can lose sight of the videos’ ultimate intent, which is to make people laugh, evoke “aawwwws,” or preferably both. The festival was dedicated to Cecil the Lion, who, to the horror of Minnesotans, was infamously killed by a local dentist and trophy hunter.

Some 40,000 votes were cast for the Golden Kitty. The award, which weighs as much as some cats, went to Alana Grelyak and Michael Gabriele of Chicago for their “Cat Behavior Finally Explained,” a parody of the MasterCard “Priceless” ad campaign and a heartfelt appeal to adopt rescue cats.

(Not to be catty, but the quality of cat videos is in the eye of the beholder. Chris Poole’s enchanting, often trenchant “What Cats See,” featuring Cole and Marmalade, failed to make it to the Feline Final Five. Cole! Marmalade! You were robbed!)

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Ultimately, the Internet dominance of cat videos raises the question: Why?

Also, why cats? Why not more agreeable, trainable and, dare we mention, affectionate dogs? (Full disclosure: These questions are being asked by an “owner” — more accurately, servant — of a perpetually ravenous, highly nocturnal cat in a household without a dog.)

To which cat video fans respond: Please.

Minnesotans, nice often being their default disposition, would never go so far as to trash canines as inferior video stars. But part of the glory in documenting cats exists in the challenge.

“Cats are more difficult. You cannot get them to do what you want them to do,” explained Gwen Nelson of Clara City, Minn., in a pink housecoat (thank you, Salvation Army) covered with stuffed toy cats, an additional toy litter in her stroller, 13 in all, the stroller usually reserved for her actual cats, Eddie and Emmie.

“I love how happy they make us. Nothing is more stress-relieving,” said Nelson, a nurse who works in neurology, offering further evidence of Myrick’s findings.

Braden, a film school graduate, recovering wedding videographer and the Seattle auteur of the Henri, Le Chat Noir oeuvre, won the first Golden Kitty for “Henri 2, Paw de Deux,” puns being another leitmotif of the Internet cat video universe. The Henri videos, shot in black and white, narrated by Braden in French (with English subtitles) and soaked with feline ennui, are an homage to Truffaut and Godard and are regularly featured at the festival.

Braden has his own cat, Nin, as in the writer Anaïs. She’s 2, rambunctious and not ready for her Internet close-up. “Filming cats, you want them more calm, and less expressive,” said Braden, revealing perhaps the only known instance in video entertainment where maturity is prized over youth, and being an older female is actually an asset.

The cat video world is not without its catfights. An Engineer’s Guide to Cats guys, aerospace engineers Paul Klussman and T.J. Wingard, perched on the upper deck, near the notably more crowded craft beer stand, meowed about Braden’s festival dominance. Their work has been a festival staple — a finalist last year, only to lose to Sho Ko’s “8 Signs of Addiction” — but failed to make this year’s cut.

“He’s curated the last two years, and is the only person to have work in all the festivals,” Klussman said, half in jest. Then again, he admitted, “We sort of blew up in 2007. Our peak might have been 2008.”

Henri, née Henry, is 10 years old, possibly 11, and lives near Braden’s home, owned by a close relative (more, the auteur will not disclose). He is Braden’s financial kibble. Few cats become a director’s meal ticket, like Japanese rock star Maru, but Henri comes close.

“Between making millions, and making $5, which is most people, I fall somewhere in between,” said Braden, who sports an Henri tattoo on his upper arm. The director’s business card reads, “I make cat videos.” Henri has spawned books, products (mugs, posters, shirts), and Friskies commercials. He has 32,000 followers on Twitter.

“I’ve used the Henri videos to teach students about existentialism,” said Ruth Lovejoy, a retired English teacher from Chippewa Falls, Wis. Braden was thrilled to learn this, though he added: “Just as long as she doesn’t use them to teach French.”

Of cat videos, Braden noted, “the real surprise is that their popularity is still a surprise to so many people.” Part of the videos’ appeal, he said, is “the independence and aloof nature of cats,” which is familiar to any cat owner. People’s relationships are private and personal, given that they are confined to the house or yard, while dogs are a public and shared joy, observed in the park, on the street and, increasingly, everywhere.

The Internet Cat Video Festival transforms the solitary act of watching videos at home or work into a communal experience, free of irony or debate, a joyous experience. Despite an abundant supply of beer and mixed drinks, the St. Paul police have little to do during the show except laugh with the crowd.

Filming cats is nothing new, dating to Thomas Edison’s circa 1894 “Boxing Cats.” For decades, due to cats’ highly independent natures, their film appearances tended to be confined to animation (Felix, Fritz, Sylvester, Tom, Hello Kitty, that Garfield thing).

Internet videos, being a home-based industry, mark cats’ revenge on the historic cinematic dominance of more compliant dogs and horses.

The festival remains the rare cultural event at which the subject generally fails to put in an appearance. Two years ago, when CatVidFest was held at the Minnesota State Fair (when the Walker’s grounds were also under construction), marked the historic meeting of Internet sensations (and the rare cats impervious to crowds) Lil Bub and Grumpy Cat, not quite Generals Grant and Lee at Appomattox, but close.

This year, despite the feline fashion parade, not a single actual cat was observed in attendance, many cats being notoriously housebound.

Henri has “no idea of his celebrity. I’ve never taken him anywhere,” said Braden, who travels the country with Henri videos, but sans Henri. “I have to remind myself he wouldn’t enjoy it.”

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