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Viral felines escape the Internet, star in cat videofestival

Gene Pittman / Today
At the inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival in Minneapolis in 2012, organizers expected 5,000 people. Roughly 10,000 showed up, turning a mostly solitary activity into a highly social party.

If you’ve ever enjoyed the online antics of Keyboard Cat or the melancholy musings of Henri Le Chat Noir, you’re not alone — or at least you don’t have to be.

On Wednesday, as many as 13,000 people are expected to attend the 2nd annual Internet Cat Video Festival in St. Paul, Minn. Organized by the world-renowned Walker Art Center, the festival is proof positive that you don’t need to sit in front of a computer all by yourself to enjoy a good Internet meme.

“Obviously, people love their pets but there’s also a desire for people to connect,” said festival producer Scott Stulen. “This creates that kind of shared experience with content that people love.”

On the Internet, that love is no passing fancy. A quick search for “cat video” returns 13.4 million results, with popular clips getting tens of millions of hits. Super Cats, a compilation of leaping felines set to the tune of Van Halen’s “Jump,” for example, has been viewed 45 million times, while Nyan Cat, an animated Pop-Tart of a tabby, has notched more than 101 million views in just over two years.

For Stulen, that sort of popularity seemed like a good subject for the museum’s Open Field project, an experimental platform designed to blend unique content with social experiences.

“We thought it would be fun to show cat videos in a festival format,” he said. “We wanted to make it more of a group experience instead of a solo act you do on your phone or computer.”

Others clearly agreed. Calling for entries, Stulen and his team received 10,000 submissions, which they whittled down to 80 that were compiled into a 1:15 video that was projected on a large outdoor screen for an audience estimated at 10,000 people.

“It was a whole community of people who like cats, who like cat videos and who like things that are funny,” said local playwright Heather Meyer of last year’s festivities. “It was fun to see that we were all the same kind of people.”

The same cannot be said for the stars of the big screen, which showed an astonishing array of feline personalities. There were, of course, plenty of grumpy cats, happy cats and cats jumping, falling and sliding across floors.

On the other hand, there was also Henri, star of Henri 2, Paw de Deux, a sad, black and white study of feline existentialism. Narrated in French with English subtitles — “I am free. Yet I remain.” — the video not only captured the meaningless tedium of a housecat’s lot in life but also the festival’s inaugural Golden Kitty award.

“It was unreal and exciting,” said Will Braden, the Seattle filmmaker who created the video and has gone on to build a business selling Henri memorabilia online. “I don’t think anyone realized how big it was going to be.”

Like Stulen, Braden believes the festival’s appeal boils down to people finding so many kindred spirits for what is often a solitary activity.

“There’s a thrill in taking anything that’s purely an online experience and turning it into something social,” he said. “Even though it’s the same people watching the same videos, the fact that they’re standing there next to you rather than watching on a computer halfway around the world is fundamentally different.”

This year’s festivities, which are being held at the Minnesota State Fair, will enhance the social factor with live music, interactions with local artists and prizes for attendees sporting the best cat costumes. Organizers will also screen a new compilation gleaned from more than 8,000 submissions and name the first inductees to a cat video hall of fame.

Gene Pittman / Today
Lil Bub, star of nearly 30 Internet videos, greets her fans at the inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival in August 2012.

There will also be special appearances by various “celebricats,” including Lil Bub and Grumpy Cat, and the human creators behind several other popular clips. And in an apparent nod to the festival’s move to the state fair, attendees will be treated to a special unveiling of — warning, spoiler alert! — a butter sculpture in the shape of, what else, a cat.

Ultimately, though, the festival will likely draw a crowd for the same reason that cat videos go viral in the first place.

“Cats seem to take themselves so seriously so when they do something funny, it’s hilarious,” said Meyer. “They have that attitude that I’m better than everyone but I’m still going to fall off the table.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.