The endless hours we spend watching cat videos isn’t typically thought to be a social act. But the hundreds of New Yorkers gathered Friday night at a Brooklyn concert hall would bristle and hiss at such insinuations.
The Internet Cat Video Festival descended on Warsaw, a concert hall in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, where a sold-out crowd of hundreds packed the venue. The beer flowed copiously to lubricate non-ironic conversations about the perceived real-life grumpiness of Grumpy Cat and inspire gruff New Yorkers to coo simultaneously over the adorable antics of felines caught on camera. A trifecta of 20-foot screens kept the audience captivated during the action usually confined to a screen much, much smaller.
An enterprising crew of Minnesotans has broken down the laptop-screen barriers, allowing us to revel – and fawn – together at the adorable nature of Internet felines. And yes, that includes cynical New Yorkers. Walker Art Center, well regarded in its own right as a hub of contemporary art in Minneapolis, has hit upon an artistic gold mine – one that could even be considered the latest form of modern art. After its first informal gathering in August of 2012 on the art center’s lawn in Minneapolis, unexpectedly drawing 10,000 cat video enthusiasts, the Walker Art Center took the show on the road. In the past two months, its breakneck schedule has brought them to a dozen other venues from Honolulu to Montreal to Chicago to its largest metropolis yet, New York.
Scott Stulen, the festival curator at the Walker Art Center, has adopted the annual task of culling through the thousands of submissions and cutting together the master reel. His constantly updated program now contains 86 videos, and all 75 minutes of it were screened Friday night in the standing-only auditorium. The program compiles the year’s biggest winners, as voted on by the general cat-loving public, with Grumpy Cat’s online debut topping the list, flanked by other inexplicable gems like the cat dressed in a shark costume riding a roomba. “This is like a rock show, it just happens to be with cats instead of a band,” said Don Undeen, a Brooklynite among the crowd who donned a tweed cap with a cat tail peeking out. Sure, Halloween is the time of year to slap on a pair of cat ears and call it a costume. But Warsaw was filled with hundreds of pairs of ears. And tails. And exotic prints of tabbies and calicos and cheetahs (close enough?).
But there were telltale signs that the festival was far from its Midwest roots. The impatience of New Yorkers reared its head during an overly long montage of cat owners imitating their pets. “Where are the cats?! Where are the cats?!” came the chant from the back of the auditorium. Stulen, who also plays M.C. at the event, quickly calmed the crowd, pivoting to a previously unaired Halloween-themed clip of “Henri, le Chat Noir,” the faux-French feline philosopher that won the top prize in 2012. To say he’s a fan favorite would be paw-sitively an understatement. “How do frightening ghouls have anything to do with squash?” questions the black-and-white ball of fur in the clip so new it hasn’t yet hit his popular YouTube channel.
Most fans weren’t there to see Henri or Stulen, though – or even the cat videos. The loudest squeals of the night came when the guest of honor took the stage. And of course we’re not talking about a human guest. Lil Bub, the beloved “perma-kitten” born genetic mutations that give her adorably bulging eyes and an unretractable pink tongue. Only a cat of her status — and stature (her legs are too short for her body, confining her only to a waddle) — could draw such a glee-filled crowd. Her presence inspired barroom discussions about the meaning of feline fame and more than one overheard conversation from plaid-clad 20-somethings about the price one would pay to pet her. But Friday night, Lil Bub was a VIP – there would be no meet and greets, just the proud absorption of veneration from her fans.
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Owner Mike Bridavsky, a music producer from Bloomington, Ind., took the stage, cradling the four-pound kitten in his hands. Asking for quiet to avoid startling the fragile cat, the boisterous crowd descended to a whisper of “awws.” Famous cats command that kind of power, giving listless New Yorkers something to rally around — and it had everything to do with cats. The beer probably helped, too.