It was an ordinary day in 2006, perhaps in 2005. The exact date is now lost, forever, in the annals of history. Nothing special, really, except that on that day a revolution was born.
It was a day that one cat — a British Shorthair, to be exact — asked the question that launched a thousand memes: I can has cheezburger?
The ensuing Internet craze for all things cats — from Keyboard Cat to the Mirror Cat Vine clip, from Nyan Cat to Grumpy Cat — has since continued, unabated, for more than eight years. This cultural phenomenon will be celebrated this Saturday, when the Internet Cat Video Film Festival, a touring cinematic tribute of all things cats, will be shown by the Farnsworth Art Museum at Harbor Park in Rockland at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23.
Cat videos? At an art museum? Especially one like the Farnsworth, which is more known for its collection of Andrew Wyeth paintings and Louise Nevelson sculptures? It’s not as odd a choice as you might expect. Though it might seem silly on the surface, a closer look at cat videos reveals a surprising amount of depth and cultural relevance — as well as artistic merit.
“Today, art is as much about 2D and 3D works as it is social works and multi-sensory experiences,” said David Troup, communications officer for the Farnsworth. “People all over the world are creating cat videos, and sharing them, and creating a shared experience among millions of people. It really becomes a commentary on social media and the power of those shared experiences. That’s absolutely a perfect topic for an art museum to explore.”
Some cat videos are as simple as a someone capturing with a cellphone a 90-second clip of a cat diving, repeatedly, through a cardboard box. Some are much more involved, like the ongoing video adventures of Henri, Le Chat Noir, inspired by French experimental films of the 1940s and by film noir and shot by filmmaker Will Braden. The most popular videos have received millions of views over the years.
The Internet Cat Video Film Festival is a touring collection of the best Internet cat videos, put together by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which hosted the first cat video film festival in 2012. The original event attracted over 10,000 people to the museum and cultural center, a success far bigger than anyone expected.
After that inaugural festival in 2012, the Walker decided to put together a touring festival — something Farnsworth education coordinator Kelly Finlay heard about, and thought would be a great event for the museum to sponsor.
“I remember seeing an article in the New York Times about it, and thinking that it looked like so much fun,” said Finlay. “I had it in the back of my mind for a while, and when it finally got brought up to [Farnsworth] director [Christopher Brownawell] it started to take off. We’re one of the Walker’s official tour sites for the festival, and we’re really thrilled.”
Prior to the actual screening, which runs 72 minutes and starts at 8 p.m. Saturday, the Farnsworth will host a Cat Fair from 5 to 7:45, which will feature a cat costume contest, a “cuddle booth” for people to hug cats, a stuffed animal M.A.S.H. unit so kids (and adults) can repair their damaged stuffed animals, cat face painting and mask making, food vendors, and an adoption booth from the P.A.W.S. Animal Adoption Center.
“It’s a great opportunity for us. We are actively looking at different ways to engage the community and make the museum a more welcoming place to a much greater audience,” said Troup. “This is exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that we can embrace.”
After all, cat videos — and cat memes in general — encompass a wide array of creative approaches. You can see hints of Andy Warhol in the mass-generated LOLcats strewn across the Internet. There’s certainly an element of surrealism in Space Cats, the Facebook and Twitter pages featuring images of cats floating in interstellar space. The faux-religions and mythologies of Long Cat and Ceiling Cat have elaborate histories behind them.
Most importantly, however, is the collective experience people have surrounding cat videos and cat memes — something the Farnsworth hopes to showcase with the festival this weekend.
“The whole point is that you share these videos with your friends and with people on Facebook and Twitter,” said Findlay. “They can seem like a guilty pleasure, but by putting these videos on the big screen and having it be a really public experience puts them in a totally different context. Plus, it’s just fun. Who doesn’t love cat videos?”