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Cat power and the Walker: ‘You can’t not laugh at a cat riding around on a vacuum’

Is it art? Katie Czarniecki Hill is looking forward to seeing who comes and what happens at the Internet Cat Video Film Festival.

Open Field blogger Katie Czarniecki Hill with her cat Ron.
Courtesy of Katie Czarniecki Hill

One of the most popular social media memes making the rounds of late goes, “What matters most in life is not how much money you have. It’s about quotes and stuff that tell you what life is really all about. And here is a picture of a cat.”

And then, there, is a picture of a cat.

Aug. 30 at Walker Art Center, there will be more pictures of cats. Moving pictures of cats that have gone viral, like this one. And this one.

And this one.

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How did this happen? How did one of the world’s preeminent art institutions stoop to presenting something called the Internet Cat Video Film Festival, to be held outdoors on the Walker plaza as part of its Open Field summer program Thursday, Aug. 30?

Blame/champion Katie Czarniecki Hill.

“The first time I mentioned the idea publicly was on our Mnartists.org “Best of 2011” blog post, where each of our staffers named our five favorite things from the year and two wishes for the following year,” says Hill, 28, who does social media and blogging for Open Field and maintains the online data base of local artists and live programming for Mnartists.org. “And one of my wishes was that I would be able to have a cat video festival in Open Field. That planted the seed.”

Hill and her husband, Matt Hill, live in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul with an orange and white cat named Ron and a gray tabby named Max. Katie’s passion for cats (hashtag: #catlady4eva) has proven infectious, but how did she convince WAC powers-that-be that a smorgasbord of whimsical cat videos should be installed a few whiskers away from all that serious modern art?

“When spring came around and we were planning the Open Field program, I asked if could show some cat videos on the field at the end of the summer, and right away everyone said, ‘Yeah, that sounds fun. Sounds great. Let’s make it into a program,’” she said.

‘Crowd-sourced experiment’

“It was pretty lighthearted, and there were a couple other ladies in the office who like watching cat videos, so they affirmed it was a good idea. And [Mnartists.org project director] Scott [Stulen] helped me turn it into a public program and we decided to take nominations and make it this community crowd-sourced experiment.”

In July, the Walker announced it was taking nominations for the best cat videos. The story itself went viral. Over the last few weeks, Hill and her colleagues have pored over 10,000 submitted videos. Meanwhile, Hill has done radio interviews with shows in Australia, Ireland, North Carolina, and NPR marketplace, and the story hit the Los Angeles Times, Time,  the BBC, the Kansas City Star, and Canadian television.

Obviously, Hill and her crew have tapped into a new opiate for the masses, a pussy riot of our own. But while the act of watching cat videos is a rabbit (er, kitty) hole many go down (a cat in Japan’s video has been seen by 58 million people), the question is:

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Is it art?

“That’s a great question, one that I’m not really going to speak to. I know better,” says Hill with a laugh. “But I think the interesting, more artistic part you can pull out of this is actually the social experiment of it all: the participatory practice of seeing who comes, and what happens, and if people like it, and seeing if all this Internet press translates into people actually coming here next Thursday night.”

Leave the cats at home

Interested cat people should know that activities start at 4 p.m., and the videos start at 8:30. Hill suggests bringing a blanket, riding your bike, leaving the cats at home, and buying a T-shirt.

In the end, she attributes the popularity of cat videos to the fact that “you can’t not laugh at a cat riding around on a vacuum,” and hopes the laughter is contagious.

“I know a lot of people like cat videos,” she said, “and why does it have to be something you do by yourself on your computer? Maybe that’s the way it was meant to be, but maybe we can do it together.”