What's It Like to Watch 10,000 Cat Videos? Ask Kate Hill
The Walker Center's festival drew thousands.
Photo by Gene Pittman
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."
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."
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.
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,"
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."
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."
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
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
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
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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