Are you a dog person or a cat person? This web-quizzy query has been posed before, of course, and the stereotypes are always the same. Dog people are extroverts. Cat people are introverts. Dog people are simple. Cat people complex. Both pets are beloved for their own reasons, but cats enjoy a much more frequent pop culture presence and an obsessive kind of admiration; celebrated, worshiped, and appropriated in film, TV, fashion and music like no other animal, domesticated or wild.
Last night, “Catopia: A Night of Esoteric and Mystic Cat Entertainment” at Trepany House at the Steve Allen Theatre didn’t seek to ask why cats are so beloved or iconic. Cutesy cat symbolism is what the recent Hello Kitty Convention (and accompanying art exhibit at the Japan-American Museum) was all about. Instead, the event explored how felines are both feared and revered, showcasing the weirder side of cat mania. Catopia explored the complex and apparently occult nature of whiskered ones with a lecture illustrating the historical link between cats, demonology, and witchcraft, followed by a “cat séance,” cat themed performance art, and live music from Cat Sabbath (featuring members of Julie Ruin, headlining the Troubadour tonight) doing a Josi & the Pussycats meets Ozzy thing.
Professor and author Paul Koudounaris, best known for this photographic surveys of skeletons, charnal houses and tombs around the world in his books Empire Of Death and Heavenly Bodies, organized the event as an extension of his successful lectures about cat demonization.
Scheduling the celebration as a post-Halloween happening was an apropos coincidence, as cat imagery was everywhere this past holiday, from the ubiquitous black figure that nobody wants to cross paths with to the eternally seductive go-to costume for women. Indeed, it’s the mischievous sex appeal of the pointy eared pet (embodied best by the villainess Cat Woman) and to a lesser extent, the feral big cats (what lady doesn’t love a leopard print?) that many find irresistible. The “P word” doesn’t refer to female private parts for nothing. Straight up, cats are sexy. They are also, if Koudinaris' folkloric history presentation is to be believed, controlled by evil forces.
“Back in the day cats were associated in the pagan world with witchcraft and with night. With Christianity cats became symbols for the devil,” says Koudounaris. “Their personality was thought to be antagonistic to God because they never accepted man’s natural position of domininace like dogs do.”
If there is a Satanic subtext to cat love, Alexandra Crockett's recent book release, Metal Dudes + Cats, seems to support it. The book, which started as a zine, became a sensation by highlighting feline fascination from a seemingly unlikely source: burly male rockers. In fact, ballsy head bangers and hair balls go hand in paw, according to Crockett, who was signing the book last night.
“Punk guys have dogs, but metal guys have cats,” said Crockett. “They're just easier to care for, especially when on tour and their don't-give-a-shit attitude is appealing.”
It’s the kitty ability to be both adorable and aloof that’s key here. Earning the affection of a cat or cats is akin to scoring interest from an unrequited crush. The elusive bad boy/hot chick, if you will. Cats, no matter their sex, have a certain feminine grace and unpredictablity that women relate to and men are attracted to. They’ll purr for you, then scratch you two seconds later if they don’t like your petting technique. The love of a dog is, by comparison, too easy. A man who prefers cats to dogs is often, like his cat, a pretty hard nut to crack, yet he’s usually practical. It’s no coincidence that women often turn into the “crazy cat lady” cliché when no males are around for a long period of time.
“Cats don’t need us,” offers Tricia Fetters, events booker at Wacko/La Luz de Jesus Gallery, who helped Koudinaris organize the event. “They’re elusive and they could care less about us humans most of the time. That’s fascinating.”
At Catopia, people wore ears and animal prints, but the homage paid was different from what we saw at the Hello Kitty convention. The vibe was both academic and punk rock. And even with all the strange amusements going on inside, it was the area outside that had the most palpable purr. Real cats were lounging and pouncing inside cages for on-the-spot adoption and a couple actually found homes, their powers of seduction obviously irresistible to many attendees.
“The bond with a cat is so different from any other animal,” says Koudounaris. “You bond with a dog but you commune with a cat. Getting into a deep relationship with a cat is hard to explain. You have to break through a barrier, but when you do it's like a psychic connection.”
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: