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Being Catty

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Originally the creator of the Internet Cat Video Festival didn’t believe his event would amount to much.

“I thought we’d only have a couple of hundred people show up. We’d show a few videos and have a few beers and go home, and that would be the end of it,” says the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Curator of Audience Experiences and Performance Scott Stulen.

But fate (and cat lovers) had other plans.

The premiere event took place in 2012 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—Stulen’s employer at the time. Things got weird as soon as the festival was announced online.

Word spread fast of the Internet Cat Video Festival coming to the IMA. Though it will likely sell out prior to this weekend, tickets remain for the Friday and Saturday screenings. - COURTESY OF THE WALKER
  • Courtesy of The Walker
  • Word spread fast of the Internet Cat Video Festival coming to the IMA. Though it will likely sell out prior to this weekend, tickets remain for the Friday and Saturday screenings.

Within hours, news organizations ranging from the Web page Gawker.com to Time magazine asked for interviews. No one was more surprised than Stulen, who scrambled to round up a bigger projection screen and a better sound system to accommodate the ever-swelling mass of ticket buyers.

When the big night arrived, some 10,000 people showed up to partake of a curated selection of Internet cat videos. Some of the films were YouTube fixtures that had already been seen by millions on their phones and computers, but watching them in a communal setting somehow made it special.

“It’s different seeing it in a crowd instead of at home,” Stulen says. “It makes something you’ve already seen feel different. It’s kind of amazing to hear 10,000 people all go ‘ahhhh’ at the same time.”

It helped transform the Internet Cat Video Festival from a trifling one-off into a pop culture juggernaut that’s entwined itself in the public consciousness like cat hair in a wool sweater.

Much has changed since that first showing, both for the event and its creator. The festival is now a touring production, each year exhibiting a new reel of videos to fans in more than 150 cities around the world. This Friday and Saturday (Nov. 20th and 21st) it makes a homecoming of sorts, playing the IMA’s Toby Theater. It will be hosted by its curator and coproducer, Will Braden, who’s also the creative force behind the popular Henri, Le Chat Noir films—a bunch of moody, black-and-white shorts featuring Braden’s mother’s cat.

He’ll be joined by Bloomington’s own feline phenom, Lil BUB, and her human associate Mike Bridavsky. Stulen and Bridavsky go way back. At the second Internet Cat Video Festival in 2013, Stulen introduced Bridavsky to his future wife -- a coworker at The Walker named Stacy. A year later the two were married.

Lil BUB and her human associate, Mike Bridavsky, first appeared at the Internet Cat Video Festival back when it was contained to the Walker Art Center in the Twin Cities. - COURTESY OF MIKE BRIDAVSKY & THE WALKER
  • Courtesy of Mike Bridavsky & The Walker
  • Lil BUB and her human associate, Mike Bridavsky, first appeared at the Internet Cat Video Festival back when it was contained to the Walker Art Center in the Twin Cities.

And of course Stulen himself will also attend. Though since his departure from the Walker Art Center a couple of years ago, he’s mostly a bystander. He and Braden are friends, and he still helps informally with video selection, but for the most part, he’s no longer part of the meow mix. Not that he’s misty about it.

“Once we got the cat festival established, I was actually really happy to hand it off,” he says. “Creating the next idea is what interests me.”

Though he admits he’ll be hard-pressed to come up with something as wildly successful as the Internet Cat Video Festival, he’s certainly been trying. Indeed, that’s pretty much his mandate at the IMA: do things to increase the museum’s profile and relevance, and to grow and diversify its audience.

His primary tool is ARTx, a sort of cultural Skunk Works made possible by a $1 million grant from The Efroymson Family Fund. Its brief is to create experimental and interactive programs throughout the IMA’s vast campus. Stulen and his team have already hosted more than a hundred, both big and small. Some are whimsical riffs on larger museum efforts, such as having an artist turn a car into a giant Atari game controller as part of the Dream Cars exhibit. Others are entirely original, such as the ARTx Grown-up Summer Camp, a daylong experience in which adults do everything from learn urban beekeeping to build forts with the help of artist Brent Aldrich.

Not surprisingly Stulen, the first art museum employee in the country with the title of Curator of Audience Experiences and Performance, is blazing new trails. But (also not surprisingly) not everybody likes the idea of Mr. Internet Cat Guy telling a major museum that the best way to stay relevant is to, say, put out kiddy pools for the audience to lounge in during the Summer Nights Film Series showing of Jaws. Which Stulen totally did.

Pavlov's Kitty, or Pecan, as her owners call her, is one of the stars of this year's festival. - COURTESY THE WALKER
  • Courtesy the Walker
  • Pavlov's Kitty, or Pecan, as her owners call her, is one of the stars of this year's festival.

Although he says his unorthodox methods meet some occasional pushback, it’s nothing compared to the support he’s enjoyed.

“Look around the country and you’ll see that there are positions like mine popping up all over the place,” he says. “This is the future. Of course any radical change like this is going to be met with some tension, but I have to say, the number of people making fun of it is actually really small. It’s been much more the opposite. People who I really thought would be taken aback have instead had high praise for it.”

And though his programs seem light and fun, none come together without a tedious amount of orchestration. Likewise, the Internet Cat Video Festival may be whimsical, but putting it together is serious business. Braden, its current curator and coproducer, estimates he reviewed north of 20,000 videos to assemble this year’s approximately 70-minute reel.

“There are definitely times in the midst of it all when I wake up grumbling,” he says. “But then I look out my window and see some poor guy roofing a house in the hot sun, and I think, ‘Don’t complain, Will. You’ve got a good gig here.’”

Kratzbaum makes the rounds on the funny-cat-video festival circuit these days, thanks to Scott Stulen and the Walker Art Center. - COURTESY THE WALKER
  • Courtesy the Walker
  • Kratzbaum makes the rounds on the funny-cat-video festival circuit these days, thanks to Scott Stulen and the Walker Art Center.

Braden’s not just a cat-video watcher, but he’s also a celebrated cat-video maker—a status he owes to his poor time-management skills during college.

“I was in film school and I had to film a profile of someone,” he recalls. “But I waited too long and ran out of time. I had access to a camera and some cats, so I decided to do a parody of the French new-wave films we’d been watching in class. I thought that if I made it funny enough, maybe they wouldn’t notice that I didn’t really follow the assignment.”

His scheme worked only too well.

“I got an A, and that was the beginning of the character.”

The “character” who debuted in Braden’s 2006 class assignments is Henry, a relative’s housecat—now better-known by the über-pretentious French spelling, Henri. Braden’s used him in a clutch of black-and-white films, all featuring dark, depressing piano music, monotone French dialogue and subtitles in which “Henri” haughtily bemoans the bleakness of his existence. So far Henri/Henry’s oeuvre has received about 15 million YouTube hits.

Braden says there’s absolutely nothing snooty about the real-life 10-year-old Henry, who’s always a trouper during filming. When he recently did a cameo for a feature film that required almost a full day of production, Henry never once became overwhelmed or retreated under the living room couch—his version of sulking in his trailer.

“In contrast to his character, he’s really very malleable and happy and easygoing,” Braden says. “He really, really likes the attention. He’s turned into a bit of an attention whore.”

Braden enjoys a special bond with the festival. At its first edition he and Henry (who hates traveling and doesn’t make personal appearances) won the Golden Kitty, the event’s version of the People’s Choice Award, for their film Henri 2: Paw le Deux. And when Stulen padded off into the sunset, Braden became his cat heir apparent, assuming the “honor” of sifting through an endless stream of mostly not-very-good videos, seeking diamonds among the hairballs.

The Internet Cat Video Festival might as well add "international" to its title, with Simon Glass's Kratzbaum highlighting cat shows in Germany. - COURTESY THE WALKER
  • Courtesy the Walker
  • The Internet Cat Video Festival might as well add "international" to its title, with Simon Glass's Kratzbaum highlighting cat shows in Germany.

It sounds impossibly grueling, but Braden is up for it. Deeply committed to making sure the reel offers just the right mix of found humor and more carefully produced vignettes, Braden spends weeks obsessively watching videos of every stripe. Thousands are submitted for the competition, but he also prowls the Internet seeking overlooked examples of feline vérité.

“I’ve learned to type ‘funny’ and ‘cat’ in a bunch of languages,” Braden says. “I’ve seen videos that, if they had uploaded the title in English, would have 10 million views. But because it’s in, say, Hungarian, they don’t take off. But they’re still great. I like the idea that when people come, they can see stuff they haven’t seen before.”

Braden hosts many of the festival’s stops personally. He says that though he presents the same reel of cat videos every time, the composition of the audience, and its reactions, always differ.

“We showed it to a bunch of 25- to 35-year-old drunk people at a punk rock club in Brooklyn, and they loved it,” Braden says. “We also did one in Boise, Idaho, and it was pretty much all families. And they loved it too. And we did one at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo in California, and people actually dressed up for it. It’s a different vibe wherever we go, but nobody ever comes away disappointed.”

Bridavsky, Lil BUB's human associate places much of the credit for that success on the reel itself. Though most of the individual videos it showcases don't qualify as artistic endeavors, their skillful combination creates something that's greater than the sum of its parts.

"Each video in itself may not be considered art, but the curation of the reel certainly is," Bridavsky says. "It's very well curated, and it's curated a lot like any other artistic collection. And I think anything that brings people into the museum and gets them interested and going out somewhere, away from in front of the computer, is a good thing."

Though the festival could show its videos anyplace, Stulen made a point of booking it into cultural institutions—a policy that continues today.

“I wanted to have it take place primarily at museums and cultural organizations, so that it could change the perception of those being stuffy places where you couldn’t do things like this,” he says.

It’s the same philosophy he’s advancing at ARTx, with its kiddie pools and car-size game controllers: Catching the casual eye with the fun and unexpected, then (hopefully) guiding it to something more challenging and substantial.

“This isn’t about abandoning the seriousness of art or abandoning core principles,” Stulen says. “It’s about finding ways to get people engaged.”

It’s hard to imagine a better tool for that than the Internet Cat Video Festival. It’s as fluffy and lightweight as a Persian kitten, but it’s a tiger when it comes to drawing first-time museum visitors.

“I’m very proud of it, and it’s not something I want to hide from,” Stulen says. “I hope that, looking back 10 or 15 years from now, it’s one of several things I was able to create that helped to break down misperceptions about museums and make them more of a social space for a wider audience.”

No doubt about it, the cultural community owes a great debt to felines, as does Stulen himself. Too bad he can’t have one of his own. His wife and two sons are allergic to cats.

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