The renowned Walker Art Center in Minneapolis staged a global phenomenon on August 30, 2012: A one-night Internet Cat Video Festival that drew an astounding 10,000 people to the Center’s Open Field. In Austin, during South By South West, Cathy Byrd meets curators Scott Stulen and Katie Hill in the KUT/NPR studios to talk about their legendary project.
Sound Editor: Eric Schwartz | Photos and Episode Sound: Courtesy Walker Art Center
CATHY BYRD: In August 2012, the renowned Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota staged a one-night Internet Cat Video Festival that drew 10,000 people to the Center’s Open Field. Today, in Austin, at South By Southwest, I’m speaking with Scott Stulen and Katie Hill, the curators of that legendary project. What questions led you to the concept of a cat video festival?
KATIE HILL: It all started with the platform of Open Field at the Walker Art Center, which is an experimental public programming space meant for creative expression of all kinds. Working there opened up our brains to the possibility of almost anything happening on the field. Having a secret passion for cat videos myself, we thought it would be a lot of fun to project some at the end of the summer on Open Field. From there, the program sort of skyrocketed into a much bigger experiment about taking an online phenomenon offline and seeing if people would like to watch the videos together. And they did! All ten thousand of them!
CB: Scott, can you tell me about Open Field, the outdoor program space where CatVidFest took place?
SCOTT STULEN: Open Field is about having an opportunity, not only for artists and the museum institution, but also for the public to participate and create programming. Over the course of the last three summers, we had over three hundred projects presented on Open Field, as small as a book club and as large as ten thousand people for the Internet Cat Video Festival. What I think was great about the Cat Video Festival is that it brought together a lot of those components into one very large event and crowdsourced the content for it. It had a social component and was also an experiment, which was what we were after with Open Field. This became the event that kind of took it to another level.
CB: Katie, can you describe the selection process and tell us a little about the aesthetics of the winning cat videos?
KH: Basically, I posted a blog on the Walker website asking people to nominate their favorite cat videos on the internet. It was really simple to Google them; you could just put in your favorite video. We were expecting maybe a couple hundred entries, and then a month later we had about ten thousand. So, we called in some extra help and created a jury of curators, artists, cat lovers—a little bit of everybody— to help us make the first cut through that massive number of cat videos.
CB: What did you identify as the aesthetics of the cat video genre?
KH: This is a hard question. We decided everything boils down to whether or not the form and the content seem to fit. A shaky cell phone video that’s low quality and blurry but captures a hilarious cat fall or silly happening unexpectedly can be just as good as a highly produced, edited video with a voiceover and very clever film tropes applied to it. They can both be equally good and it is hard to compare that range of quality. But at the end of the day, we asked, is there an element of surprise? Does the form match the content? And, are there cute cats in it? Obviously!
CB: Scott, in what way do you think this project tested the boundaries of online communities?
SS: I think what is interesting is the tension between how you tap into something that’s obviously a phenomenon online, and then translate that over to a real world experience. That was really core to this experiment, because you know a cat video is something people share around. You see it on your phone or you might see it on your computer at work, but it’s usually a solitary experience. It’s very obviously different seeing this cat video that has been seen many times before, but with ten thousand other people.
CB: Scott, can you reflect on the potential outcome of curating projects with broad public appeal?
SS: What’s interesting is finding different ways you could reach out to an audience. As a curator you know part of what you’re doing is selecting things, but also presenting them in a way that may be different for an audience. It is interesting to really think about the audience that attends CatVidFest as being as valuable as the audience who is coming to the museum and seeing a regular exhibition. There isn’t hierarchy there; they are both valuable. The one nice take-away from this event is that there were a lot of people who came to this event who may not have come to anything else. They went away with a sense that the Walker was important and valuable to them and a sense of pride in the community; this event happened in Minneapolis and they were part of it. Anytime you can make something like that happen as a curator or programmer or at least set up the possibility for that happening, that’s successful. I think that’s what drives us to want to do this type of work.
CB: So channeling that audience energy into your space for more serious projects would be a goal?
SS: Absolutely. I think there is some crossover with it, and if there isn’t, that’s okay too. What surprised us a little is that in the aftermath of the event, we had a lot of requests for restaging it. I think it is probably to our credit in positioning it in the right context. Nearly every single one of those requests has come from other museums or other non-profits, and not from more commercial venues. So people really got it, and they got it in the context we wanted to present it. That’s something we didn’t necessarily anticipate, but has been a nice outcome.
CB: What is the future of the cat video festival in Minneapolis?
SS: It’s still going. We have tours lined up that are traveling around the country this spring.
CB: It’s touring?
SS: Yes, it’s on the road. It has already been to four or five cities and we have a few more including Oakland, San Francisco, and Portland this spring. This summer, we announced that we’re going to do a second version of it. Due to some construction happening at the Walker, it’s going to be changing venues to the Minnesota State Fair, which in Minnesota is a big deal. It’s going to be at the Grandstand, which can hold thirteen thousand people for the event. Now there is a challenge! How do we top it from last year? There is an expectation now that we didn’t necessarily have the first time.
CB: But you only have room for three thousand more people.
SS: Yeah. We could always do two screenings. [laughter]