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An Art Historian Asks: Why Do I Like the Internet Cat Video Festival So Much?

Why do I like the Internet Cat Video Festival so much?  More to the point, why does it bother me that I like it so much? The truth is, I was taken with the idea of the festival before I ever attended.  I’m an art historian – I’m in the business of taking art seriously […]

catfest

Why do I like the Internet Cat Video Festival so much?  More to the point, why does it bother me that I like it so much? The truth is, I was taken with the idea of the festival before I ever attended.  I’m an art historian – I’m in the business of taking art seriously – but I don’t find a festival of cat videos too lowbrow for the Walker.

Why not?

It occurs to me that the internet is like a living organism — one that has drastically changed the way most people socially interact.  With all the talk in my field about art of social practice, Open Field seems to me a perfect way of making concrete the concepts under discussion. And the Walker’s internet cat video festival is a particularly successful case in point, bringing that practice into the real world.

Domestic spaces are filled with screens. Cat videos combine small, cuddly pets, digital cameras and isolated humans. Fans and makers of the form may connect virtually, but we usually watch in isolation. While many of us might enjoy the same cat videos, there’s no lasting, in-person connection. I think the festival’s wild popularity stems from its upending of that dynamic, from the quirky connections between people forged through simple physical proximity.  The  unlikely combination of internet + cats + festival is the key source of #Catvidfest’s artfulness.  Music fans expect to convene outside for Rock the Garden – hearing live music in the park is a relatively routine activity of summer. But cats and homemade YouTube videos both tend to be silly, and admitting to loving them is a little socially awkward. And those are the very elements that make the act of coming together to watch them in public at an art museum intriguing.

I went to latest iteration of the festival, back again this year on the Walker’s big green space. And I had a blast.  It was like liberating a guilty pleasure, a mass confession of sheer delight in watching banal, mostly poorly-made amateur cat videos. And just think of all the places Walker’s #Catvidfest has now toured! It’s a borderless pleasure, globally shared.  And that’s what really struck me, sitting on the Walker’s grassy knoll with thousands of strangers last week – laughing harder than I think I’ve laughed in long time. Mine was part of a collective enjoyment, and that happiness was a palpable thing, centered on flickering images on a screen of something small, fluffy and breathing.

And you know what? It was just what I needed.

I’ve been such a news junkie lately, following feeds and news stories in the hopes that, maybe, just one of the world’s current border/religious/political/racial conflicts might have found resolve since I last checked in. But no. In fact, just today, as I write this, we learned a journalist was beheaded.  As the Washington Post commented recently, the Internet Cat Video Festival  – the experience of collectively watching cats be ridiculous – provides an antidote, a shared reprieve from the dire news of the day. And the effects of that are good for all of us.

catpeople

For some, there’s surely still a nagging snootiness, the lingering question: “But is this art?” I’d point them to the work of Will Braden, hired by the Walker to curate this year’s reel of cat videos. He cleverly spliced one amusing feline feat into another in ways that got everyone howling; he added in unexpected things, like vintage cat video footage; the Minneapolis firehouse cat was a total gem.

Want to know something funny? I watch absolutely no cat videos on the internet. (I do other stupid things to waste my time online.) So, I’m not really qualified to judge the festival in terms of cat video quality.  What I can speak to are the relational aesthetics  of the event – in plain English, how well this festival fosters new relations among viewers with each other and with the contemporary, social and media world around them.

Dr. Sheila Dickinson writes about contemporary art and was Secretary of the Irish section of the International Association of Art Critics.