ROCKLAND, Maine — It’s a question as deep and resonant as the age-old philosophical mind-bender about the chicken and the egg: what came first, the Internet or the cat videos we watch on the Internet?
A crowd of hundreds gathered Saturday night under the stars at Rockland’s Harbor Park to search for answers — and, perhaps more importantly, to laugh themselves silly at the antics of cats such as Lil Bub, Grumpy Cat, Henri le Chat Noir and more on the 40-foot-tall inflatable screen in front of them.
It was the first time the Internet Cat Video Film Festival had come to Maine, thanks to the Farnsworth Art Museum, and cat lovers of the Pine Tree state brought their party ears, tails and excitement to Rockland for the event.
“I can’t choose,” Alydia Hatch, 9, of Cushing said when asked what was her favorite part of the festival so far. “It’s all awesome.”
Kelly Finlay, the education coordinator at the Farnsworth, said that the festival originated at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2012, when 10,000 people came together to watch a curated collection of favorite cat videos. The clips were culled from a collection of thousands nominated by cat video aficionados, aka, almost everybody who has sat in front of a computer. The festival began touring that year, and Finlay read about it in the New York Times.
“I said, oh, that sounds like a great idea,” she said. “Contemporary art is about multisensory experiences. It’s not just the gilded-frame 20th century oil paintings or the white cube.”
According to the Walker Art Center website, the Internet Cat Video Festival has been wildly popular, with nearly 1 million views on the Internet Cat Video Festival YouTube playlist.
“What does it all mean?” the website asks. “It wasn’t just about watching cat videos. It was about watching cat videos together. … Watching cat videos with 10,000 [people] in the shadow of a leading contemporary art center is part of what makes it interesting.”
In Rockland, before the sun set and the videos started, children participated in a cat costume contest. They lined up to enter the cuddle booth, a tent staffed by PAWS Animal Adoption Center and featuring several playful black cats, all of which were on the prowl for new homes.
“This is nice,” Joelle Albury of PAWS said. “Oftentimes when we take the cats out, it’s at banks or to retirement homes. Here, the kids get more interaction with them.”
There was a tarot card reader, who went by the name of “Catarorita,” who used a deck adorned with cats. There was even a stuffed animal MASH unit, staffed by Dr. Bjorn Lee and others from Rockport’s PenBay Veterinary.
Lee, surrounded by a pile of bandaged stuffed animals, said that he had done lots of wellness checks and some emergency surgery.
“We sewed up a horse. We fixed an eye on a dragon and treated lots of leg injuries,” he said. “My staff would like to do this all day.”
As the sky darkened, people found seats on the sloping hillside and watched the boats passing in the harbor just beyond the screen, waiting for the lights to flicker on and the MGM lion — repurposed as an adorable kitten — yowling to signal the show would start soon.
The festival succeeded in providing a public place to share videos most often watched at home, in minutes stolen from jobs or homework. The crowd sighed appreciatively at the antics of kittens, and cheered as a man made a tall tower of cardboard boxes as a reward for a beloved pet that had undergone a painful course of medicine. They applauded cats that have become famous through popular cat videos, such as Lil Bub, and enjoyed the existential angst that belongs to Henri, always filmed in black and white.
Not everyone was a fan of all the videos, which ran the gamut of themes from drama to documentary to the simple, silly antics of cats.
“Most of the professional ones were pretentious,” Paul Shorb of Tenant’s Harbor said while leaving. “Like selfies on steroids.”
But his wife, Teena, said that there’s just something about cat videos.
“I shriek with laughter, because they’re so funny,” she said of watching cat videos at home. “I just sit there for hours.”