Feline Fans Unite at Internet Cat Video Festival

BY Cat Wise  May 14, 2013 at 12:45 PM EST

Several thousand gathered in Oakland, Calif., to watch cat videos. Photo by Cat Wise/PBS NewsHour.

My mother used to tell me the world was divided into two groups: those who love Neil Diamond, and those who don’t. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the world is actually divided between those love Lil Bub, Henri Le Chat Noir, Maru and Grumpy Cat, and those who have no clue what I’m talking about. For those of you who fall into the latter group, they are cats. Very popular cats who have millions of followers on the Internet. One of Grumpy Cat’s YouTube videos has nearly 10 million views.

Last weekend I immersed myself in the world of these cat lovers at the Internet Cat Video Festival in Oakland, Calif. Around 6,000 people gathered on a late spring afternoon to celebrate all things feline and to watch nearly 70 minutes of hilarious cat web videos projected on a 10-story building after the sun went down.

Young and old donned cat costumes and enjoyed food and live music on blocked-off streets in downtown Oakland. The event, which was sponsored by the Great Wall of Oakland, also included vendors selling cat paraphernalia as well as local agencies putting cats up for adoption. Proceeds from the event — expected to be around $50,000 — will benefit the East Bay SPCA.

An appearance by Dusty the Klepto Kitty was one of the highlights of the evening. People lined up to have their photo taken with the dozing cat, who was dressed up in a prison outfit. Dusty became famous — more than 2 million YouTube views — for stealing things like toys and clothes from the homes of neighbors. He’s even been on “Late Show With David Letterman.” Dusty’s owner Jean Chu says Dusty has taken nearly 1,000 different items during the seven years she’s owned him. “If you want to make yourself happy, find a cat video,” Chu said, adding that her favorite Internet kitty star is little Attila.

Heather Nelson, the proud owner of a 4-year-old cat named “Snickle Fritz,” was also in attendance. The Berkeley grad student postponed her honeymoon by a week so she could attend the festival. “People have teased me my whole life for being a cat lover,” Nelson said. “I feel like I can really be me here. I can let my cat freak flag fly and finally feel accepted.”

The festival is the brain-child of Scott Stulen, who is project director at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Last summer, Stulen and his colleagues posted a request for people to nominate their favorite cat web videos. They received 10,000 submissions from all over the world, and 79 were selected to be shown at a festival at the museum. Stulen says he expected a few dozen people to attend the screening. More than 10,000 cat fans showed up, and Stulen realized he was onto something.

“Yes, it is cat videos. But there are other things going on,” said Stulen. “What is the role of a museum today? You can shoot a video on a phone, put it up on the Internet, and millions can see it. You don’t have to have a curator even touch it. How institutions are responding to things happening in popular culture is interesting.”

Stulen admits he’s often asked if what he has organized is “art.”

“I jokingly say who cares?” Stulen sad. “But the more serious answer is, some of it is. On one end, you have the Henri video. It is very thoughtfully done. The guy who made it is a filmmaker, and he gets it from an artist perspective. On the other end of it is a 12-second [cellphone] video from six years ago with 30 million hits. There are a lot of things happening within this. It is reflective of what people are looking at, and what they are sharing. I think for a museum it is interesting to be a part of that dialogue.”

Stulen and his colleagues have received requests to screen the Internet Cat Video Festival from 200 cities around the country and abroad. So far, in addition to Oakland, they’ve taken it to Boston, San Diego, Memphis, Tenn., and Austin, Texas. In August, the Walker Art Center will host a second festival at the Minneapolis Fair Grounds with all new cat videos.

“I thought this would fade away,” Stulen said, “but just the opposite. It keeps growing. It is fun and playful. We’re doing this with a sincere interest and joy about the content. We’re not doing it ironically; we’re not an institution looking at this and saying ‘ha ha.’ We’re saying, ‘It’s ok to like this.’ And people have responded to that beyond my highest expectations.”

As the sun set Saturday night, the festival kicked-off with two cats playing patty-cake. The crowd roared with laughter. As an Internet cat videos noob, I found myself laughing and awww-ing with everyone else. My favorite video: Stalking Cat.