As a freelancer, I’m always looking for new forms of income. Shifting for a national newspaper? Yes please. Corporate writing? I don’t mind if I do. Radio presenting? You betcha.
A couple of years ago I also tried to become a t’interweb millionaire via the-can’t-possibly-fail strategy of cat videos. During a vicious bout of flu I discovered, purely by accident, that my new kitten loved to play fetch. A cute cat behaving like a dog, chasing rolled-up balls of newspaper? Ker-ching! So I filmed Seamus, posted a short film to YouTube, sat back and waited for the cash to roll in.
Two years later and only 45 people have seen that video. And most of those viewings are me, puzzling over the curious fact that my foolproof plan has amounted to nothing. Come on people! There are loads of appalling cat videos on the internet and they still go viral. And there are tons of cats playing fetch which dominate YouTube. I know. I’ve checked.
Like many internet sensations, there seems to be no rhyme nor reason to the success of some clips and the abject failure of others. What is in little doubt is the overwhelming popularity of cat videos. YouTube is awash with them and entire sites are devoted to our feline friends. Just look at the mass appeal of Cats That Look Like Hitler if you’re in any doubt.
It was with this in mind that Scott Stulen, a museum curator in the States, set up the the world’s first Internet Cat Video Festival back in 2012. Now curator of audience experiences and performance at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, at the time of the festival’s inception Stulen was at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“People enjoy cat videos but there’s something else to this,” Stulen tells Northern Soul. “We feel very connected by social media but we are not running into each other in the real world, particularly these sub-cults that exist on the internet. So what does that mean for offline relationships?”
He adds: “From a curatorial standpoint, what does it mean when people put videos on YouTube and a cultural entity is not part of that? With the Internet Cat Festival, there is a unique connection when these videos are shared online but there’s also a real world experience.”
Back in 2012, the Internet Cat Video Festival was no more than a small experiment as part of the Walker Art Center’s outdoor summer programming on Open Field, the green space adjacent to the building. What if there was an evening programme dedicated to the Internet phenomenon of cat videos? Would anyone come to watch videos they could easily view with a few clicks at home or work? How would this solo hobby translate to a public setting?
That first year more than 10,000 people turned up, followed by 12,000 the following year. The night before the 2013 festival, Depeche Mode were playing in Minneapolis. They had an audience of 9,000.
Since then, the Internet Cat Video Festival has appeared in 120 cities across eight countries, including Scotland. Watching cat videos in the comfort of your own house is no longer a guilty habit – and nor is enjoying feline frolics en masse.
“It’s been amazing,” says Stulen. “We didn’t know what to expect in the first year. It was a novelty – a high art museum doing something with low art cat videos. But it’s become like it is with music, it’s the difference between hearing the recording and going to see a live show.
“The unique thing about the Internet Cat Video Festival is that, for the majority of videos, people have seen them before. But they’ve not seen them with thousands of other people. It changes the experience completely.
“It’s also interesting that, at other types of performances, people are trying to take photos, trying to document where they are and put it back online. At the cat festival, most of the videos are already online, so people put their phones away and enjoy the festival itself. That’s different.”
He adds: “The festival is about how we consume culture and what is curation. And it’s about the relevance of a cultural institution and their need to adapt to change. One of the successes of the festival is that it has brought a lot of people to the Walker Art Center who weren’t coming beforehand. The festival is their access point. And when it’s been shown throughout the world, it has attracted diverse audiences who might not have been exposed to those venues otherwise.”
Over the past few years, Stulen has heard stories about people who have met via online chat rooms and chosen the Internet Cat Video Festival to meet each other in person for the first time. This week he will be talking about the impact of his work at the digital culture and ideas festival FutureEverything in Manchester.
“I always like talking about these topics. The conference is an incredible opportunity and it’s a lot of fun to talk about the oddity of the Internet Cat Video Festival, but I’m just as excited about seeing everyone else.”
It’s worth pointing out, however, that while some celebrity cats make the journey to the Stateside cat festival, there will not be any famous felines in attendance in Manchester this weekend.
FutureEverything runs until February 28, 2015. For more information about Scott Stulen’s talk and a whole host of other events, click here
Please scroll down for some of Internet Cat Video Festival’s most popular choices (apart from the first one, that’s the much-overlooked Seamus The Cat Playing Fetch As A Kitten)