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What's It Like to Watch 10,000 Cat Videos? Ask Kate Hill

The Walker Center's festival drew thousands.
The Walker Center's festival drew thousands.
Photo by Gene Pittman

See also:

*Top 10 Cat-Themed Music Videos of All Time

*5 Artsy Things to Do in L.A. This Week

Katie

Hill, the 28-year-old program associate responsible for the first-ever

Internet Cat Video Film Festival and, some critics allege, the

subsequent "downfall of modern society," watched more than 10,000 cat

videos in a single month. She is otherwise a normal-looking girl,

although watching so many cats in such a short period of time probably

changes you in ways not immediately apparent to the naked eye.

"It was a lark," she says of her festival idea. "It's been a whirlwind of craziness ever since."

Flopping

down on a sofa at the crowded Silent Movie Theatre this past August,

she seems discombobulated. With the festival a week away, the nonprofit

film foundation Cinefamily had flown her from Minnesota to Los Angeles

to present a small sampling of the videos. "I have cats, and I like cat

videos," she continues. "But I was not at the 10,000-video level of love

before this. It was quite a game changer for my lifestyle."

In

fact, she'd initially proposed the idea to her bosses at the Walker Art

Center as kind of a joke. But when they agreed, and the Minneapolis

museum invited the public to nominate their favorite videos, thousands

of entries poured in. Hill was tasked with winnowing the submissions

down to about an hour's worth of footage, or 79 videos.

Coming up

with categories was easy. Comedy, foreign, drama, musical, documentary,

art house, lifetime achievement, animated and people's choice -- done and

done. Watching the videos, however, was another story. "It was hard,"

she recalls.

Hill compiled a master spreadsheet of cat videos and

began watching two months in advance. Pacing, a strict schedule and

manageable goals were key. Come home from work, eat, watch cat videos

for two hours a night, sleep. Two hours of viewing time was the upper

limit. "More than that, it gets kind of weird."

Procrastination

was not an option, because the idea of watching cat video after cat

video for 24 hours straight at the last minute was, frankly, horrifying.

"Oh, no way, man," she says. "That would be too much."

Working a

full-time job and devoting every spare minute to Internet cats got

rough. Hill's husband would intervene at these moments with a gentle but

firm, "OK. Shut off your computer. We're gonna go outside and not talk

about cats."

Doing cat press became part of her daily routine.

First the local press called, then national, then international.

Newspapers in Ireland and Kansas City sought interviews, as did Newsweek, Wired, TIME,

the BBC and the I Can Has Cheezburger blog. Do you have cats, they

asked? How many? What's your favorite video? How did you get away with

such a silly concept at such a serious, prestigious contemporary art

institution? To which the answers are: yes, two, she can't pick, and it

wasn't a curatorial decision.

In fact, the museum was hosting the

festival as part of its Open Field initiative for experimental public

gatherings, which aims to explore the realm of the creative commons --

the notion that certain cultural resources (images, language, computer

code, even cat videos) "can and should be commonly owned."

 

"Henri 2, Paw de Deux," the winner of the festival

The

Walker Center is one of the country's foremost modern-art institutions.

Its calendar of upcoming events includes an American avant-garde film

retrospective and a Cindy Sherman show. It has the only complete archive

of graphic works by Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell, and it's the

first major museum to have shown the work of Frank Gehry and Joseph

Cornell.

Now, thanks to Hill, videos like "Kittens Riding Vacuum

Cleaner" would be making their major-museum debut at the Walker -- in the

large, grassy yard across from the Claes Oldenburg sculpture, no less.

There was understandably, Hill notes, backlash from highbrow sorts within the museum itself.

"The

art for me is in the social experiment," she counters. "In shifting the

viewing experience from the small screen in private, to the big screen

in public. In the performative act of going to a festival. The hype and

the press are part of it."

In terms of public interest, the

cat-video festival is the largest program Hill has presented since she

started at Walker a year and a half ago. Actually, by that metric, it's

possibly the largest program the museum has presented. Not even last

summer's opera for dogs, also part of the Open Field initiative and

produced by Los Angeles-based Machine Project, comes close.

Hill

had figured the "festival" would be her with her laptop showing videos

to 50 cat ladies. Instead, the Open Field staff had to change its setup

to accommodate several thousand visitors rather than several hundred.

Instead of projecting the videos onto the side of the building, they

decided to rent a giant screen.

"It has been very cool but also

personally overwhelming," Hill notes. People, for instance, have been

informing her by email that they are organizing road trips to the museum

for the cat-video festival. A man in Australia sent her his two-hour,

feature-length film about cats. Hill even got a small taste of Hollywood

when she received a call from Keyboard Cat's agent. What did he want?

"I don't know," she says, exasperated. "I mean, what do agents want?"

The

agent wanted to see if his client's video would be included. "I could

not get off the phone with him," Hill says. "He just kept talking."

(Hill also spent an inordinate amount of time telling people, no, you

can't sell your cat products on the museum lawn.)

She tried "to

stay grounded" through it all. "I have other interests," she feels

compelled to mention. "I have a degree in art history. I'm not just

obsessed with cats."

But after a while you lose perspective. After

a while, Hill says, she wasn't sure if certain videos were genuinely

funny "or just weird." Some were both. "Welcome to Kitty City" by

animator Cyriak, filled her nightmares for weeks. In it, two orbs of fur

morph into caterpillars, which morph into scorpions. "It stays with

you," she says, with a small shiver.

In the end, 10,000 people attended the festival. Despite their preparations, the Walker organizers were stunned.

As

for Hill, she could not be reached for comment. Immediately following

the event, she left for a two-week vacation to the mountains, where

there was no Internet access. And no cats.

See also:

*Top 10 Cat-Themed Music Videos of All Time

*5 Artsy Things to Do in L.A. This Week

Follow me on Twitter at @gendyalimurung, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.


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