“To be honest, I’m allergic,” confesses Jason Eppink. The associate curator of digital media at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), should be thankful his aversion to felines won’t affect the institution’s new exhibition: How Cats Took Over The Internet. It is a continuation of previous exhibits like Cut Up, a collection of re-edited popular work from largely self-taught, hobbyist editors and The Reaction GIF: Moving Image as Gesture, an enormous wall of emotional memes.
“It’s fun, but it isn’t frivolous,” notes Carl Goodman, the museum’s executive director, keenly aware that projections of funny cat vids are in the direct line of sight of an Orson Welles portrait from MoMI’s permanent collection.
How Cats Took Over The Internet is on view in the museum’s Amphitheater Gallery from Friday. It’s the same space that not long ago showed new collages from master Czech animator Jan Svankmajer alongside a looping reel of his celebrated work. Critics and cinephiles love Svankmajer (and other film-makers are inspired by him), but his reach doesn’t exactly extend into the mainstream. Anyone who accesses Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, BuzzFeed or email has looked at one of the internet’s famous funny cats, such as Maru or Lil Bub.
So why cats? Eppink has some interesting answers. Celebrating cats in this fashion is tiedwith new technology. Eppink quotes BuzzFeed’s Jack Shepherd in referring to the internet as a virtual cat park. Dog owners can go out and have their pets sniff one another, cats are mainly indoors. There was also the long perceived pejorative around cats – the crazy cat lady, a lonely spinster knitting and playing Carole King records. When the internet gave us a peek at everyone else’s cats, and how owners are delighted with the silly and obnoxious things they do, it changed their perception. It was no longer a private thing to be secretly happy when your cat decides to knock a drink over for no reason and give you a blank look. A community of cat worship not seen since the days of Imhotep was born.
The core of the exhibit is a timeline that is (here it comes) catnip to people who trade in web memes. Kitty Cams emerged in 1996, one of the many low-fi broadcasting sites that were always more interesting in theory than practice. Then came funny pictures like Pet of the Day, followed by Cat Scans, a 1998 trend, in which owners put their cats on home office scanners. The middle of the last decade saw Reddit’s user generated Caturday, which then morphed into the classic “lolcat”. At the same time came Stuff on My Cat (a personal fave), in which owners would put household objects on their pets who just did not, in internet speak, GAF. “The internet’s memory can be a bit ephemeral,” Eppink said.
In 2007 someone stuck the phrase “I can has Cheezburger?” on a seemingly smiling cat (named Happy Cat) and things really took off. Investor Ben Huh created the Cheezburger Network, which is your ground zero of internet memes. Anthropomorphizing real (not cartoon) cats with the Impact font became the de rigueur way to respond to an email or message board comment.
The still images led to gifs (Nyan Cat) and then videos (Keyboard Cat) and then, eventually, movie stars. “What you have here, in addition to some adorable imagery, is a window into the history of the internet. Cam subjects, still pictures and now, with broadband, celebrities,” Eppink said. Grumpy Cat has starred in a kid-friendly TV movie, Lil Bub has been the subject of a documentary. Maru the Cat has had two books published in the US and Japan.
The existential French feline Henri, le Chat Noir didn’t make the wall, but his owner (and founder of the Cat Video Festival) Will Braden curated the looping 30-minute highlight reel of great cat videos that will play in the amphitheater. Additionally, and in keeping with the user generated nature of the phenomenon, people will be able submit their picks if they think something is missing. If you crack up every time your pain-in-the-butt puss sits down on the newspaper you’re trying to read, this is your chance to capture that and put it in a museum where it belongs.
There will also be dates during the run where the museum will work in conjunction with pet adoption agencies, and they are planning to announce visits from some very internet famous real life cats. On Saturday 10 October, the museum’s chief film programmer David Schwartz is planning The Cat-vant Garde Film Show, a night of pet-focused art cinema featuring the work of, among others, Stan Brakhage, Carolee Schneeman and Maya Deren. (Additional programs with different titles are set for November and December. Fingers crossed for some Chris Marker.) Schwartz sees commonalities between avant garde film-makers, who often work alone, with videos in the exhibition that are “made by amateurs with low- and no-budget equipment”. Also, whether you are an experimental artist or not, nearly everyone is drawn to cats who are “eminently photographable, yet mysterious”.
MoMI’s core collection begins with zoetropes, trompes l’oeil and projectors the size of a Mini Cooper. Over the years their programming has included the complete works of Pasolini’s Salo, Peter Greenaway’s early short films and a two-day showing of Rivette’s Out 1. Purists may scoff and say an eight-second loop of a kitten playing with a toilet paper roll is not exactly advancing the art of cinema. But for moving images in our culture, there are few that are more ubiquitous. When Eppink and I start discussing the Kuleshov effect in comparison to a cat’s mercurial nature, Goodman’s ears, perhaps still feeling a slight burn from the gaze of Orson Welles’ portrait, perk up. “Feel free to project any and all film theory on to this,” he beams. There might be something in that: Citizen Cat anyone?
How Cats Took Over The Internet is at the Museum of the Moving Image from 7 August to 31 January