< Their Eyes Were Watching Cats


Friday, September 13, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  If you’ve been online lately, then you already know this:  The internet is not a storehouse of information, it is a storehouse - of cats, which brings us to this question:  Why? Why are we sending cat gifs to each other at an unprecedented rate?

Why are we spending our lunch hours watching cats jumping into increasingly smaller boxes - we’re looking at you, Maru – or being chased by small appliances? And when exactly did it become cool to be a guy who really likes - his cat?

Last month, the Walker Art Center, one of the most visited modern contemporary art museums in the nation, held the second Internet Cat Video Festival. And more than 10,000 people showed up to the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand to watch an hour of cat videos, together. Reporter Sarah Lemanczyk was there.

PEOPLE:  Cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats!

SCOTT STULEN:  It’s Kind of spectacle on top of spectacle, on top of spectacle.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  Scott Stulen is the project director for minnesotaartists.org at the Walker Art Center and the Museum’s official cat video curator.

SCOTT STULEN:  It’s not about cat videos. It’s about watching cat videos together.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  If it makes you feel better, it’s not just America that's gone cat happy. Japan has lost its mind for cats, as has Australia, where Stulen regularly talks cats on Drive Time Radio. And even places less committed to cultural cuteness, Russia, for instance, are cranking out feline videos as much as the next cats.


And then there’s the Walker’s Cat Vid Fest, which is touring the nation. Again –

Yeah, you’re doing this thing, but then 10,000 people came. It raises a whole new set of questions.


SCOTT STULEN:  What the hell just happened? [LAUGHS]


SCOTT STULEN:  Is this art?

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  Yeah, contemporary art museum, about your cat period, is it art?

SCOTT STULEN:  I think it’s a more complicated question than it might appear. What other things are art? You know, the things that are happening now, with like, animated gifs or like the, the LOLcat photos that are online, it’s like are these things art because they become such a significant cultural phenomenon? And I’m not saying they’re – it’s going to be as lasting as the Mona Lisa or anything like that at all. But I do think there are some questions to be asked here about what’s being kind of traded and produced in the culture.


SARAH LEMANCZYK:  Oh my God, what is that annoying sound? Oh, right, I – forgot. I’m watching Nyan Cat on my phone, a pop tart-esque pink cat gif trailing a rainbow, that millions have viewed, traded and over which Americans have produced ring tones, wallpaper, apps and copyright lawsuits.

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  We want to take our emotions and we use the cat as a way to express it outwardly.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  Jordan Shapiro teaches in the Intellectual Heritage Department at Temple University and has spent some time thinking about our cats, ourselves and the Internet.

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  In our connections, we see a, a really positive, fantastic how many people I’m in touch with that I wouldn't be in touch with because of it. I also lack some of the kinds of communications that I had pre-Internet. I think there’s a similar positive and negative side to how we associate cats, right? We’re not talking about biological cats, by any means. We’re talk, we’re talking about the mythological cat, ‘cause that’s what the pictures are.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  The mythological cat, the archetypal cat, the Jungian cat. Wait, what’s Jungian theory?

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  Jungian theory, put really simply, is that there are certain archetypes that underlie everything, right? There are certain things. Whether it's the witch or the cat or the old man or the hero, that these archetypes underlie our everyday actions.


SARAH LEMANCZYK:  And today, a lot of our actions take place online.


JORDAN SHAPIRO:  We take that cat mythology. We put the cat in a  suit and it allows us to look at ourselves, with humor.


SARAH LEMANCZYK:  Humor that keeps us calm and allows us to  carry on in the midst of workplace squabbles over who bcc’d whom on what email chain, and was it – or was it not, just to be mean.

But Shapiro believes that it might go even deeper than that, that there’s a specific reason why it’s cats in suits and not giraffes in bowties or equally cute koala bears.

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  What’s happening is things are really shifting in the way we think about gender in the 21st century, and the Internet is doing a lot about that. I mean, there's so much women entrepreneurship right now going on in the Internet. So I think we could even make – start to make theories about the cat’s relationship to some of that.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  Women’s increased position of society, ergo, cats in shark costume.

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  [LAUGHS] Yeah. Well, when you say it that way, it sounds crazy but – you know, we want freedom, we want independence. And the cat does that much better. And we want a comfortable kind of independence, right? We want that independence that’s sitting in the sun, not the independence that comes with, with revolution and violence. There's a little bit of fierce independence in that, and there’s a little bit of serious like reliance on someone to open the cat food in our lives.


SARAH LEMANCZYK:  Which is why Shapiro says dogs are not resonating right now. Dogs, he says, are loyal and obedient and male! Cats, on the other hand, have a more complicated, darker and twisted history about them.

JINGLE:  Me-ow!

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  Cats are very much an ancient mythology associated similar to snakes because they have these eyes that don’t blink, because they hypnotize their prey before they jump. And I think that's part of the fear, right? It’s what we get in Catwoman, right, that seductress, that, that woman whose eyes are, are – are so powerful that she can just hypnotize you, right and, and then you just become prey.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  Women became both firmly and negatively associated with cats somewhere in the Middle Ages:  Witch trials, black cats, you know, the drill.

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  You know, the crazy cat lady, right, the old maid mythology, right, that the independent, self-reliant woman is - must be lonely because they're not married.


Mar-ion –

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  And I think that in cats we’re starting to get something that’s slightly different, where it's okay.


Madame Librar-ian.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  It’s okay to like cats. It’s even okay to be a guy who likes cats.


What can I do, my dear, to catch your ear

I love you madly, madly Madam Librarian...Marian


It might even be okay to be a guy who really, really likes cats, like An Engineer’s Guide to Cats’ co-creator, Paul Klusman.

PAUL KLUSMAN:  If you have one cat, you’re just a guy who has a cat. This is Oscar. If you have two cats, well, the two cats are friends, so they can keep each other company. Ginger. When you have three cats, and Zoey, you start to get to be that guy – who has all those cats. I get probably a, a marriage proposal at least once every week or two.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  When it was first posted in 2008, Guide to Cats went viral, and for a few hours, Klusman and his creative partner, TJ Wingard, had the most popular video on the entire Internet. Wingard, also an engineer and also without a heavy background in archetypes, summed up his success like this:

TJ WINGARD:  The age of the nerd and the age of the cat came together, and we shoved both of those things into one video.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  As if Napoleon Dynamite and Hello Kitty had a child and made it yodel.

TJ WINGARD:  Cat yodeling.


SARAH LEMANCZYK:  But according to Scott Stulen of the Walker, the pair have tapped into something much larger than what they lovingly call “a waste of productive time.”

SCOTT STULEN:  Why cat videos, I think, work is that cats could care less about you. And they’re really indifferent to the camera. They’re not performing for the camera. And I think they have a different relationship to their owners too. Dog owners want their dog to be human, and cat owners want to be a cat.

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  What’s really going on is we’re now kind of like the - you know, thousands of years after the ancient Egyptians, we’re doing cat worship again.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  Jordan Shapiro.

JORDAN SHAPIRO:  Every time we turn on the, the – our computer, we have to do something to honor the cat. We have to look at an image of a cat, right? This is not that different than walking down the street and having  - in ancient Egypt and having to look at, look at a cat statue, right, because somebody put it there. You know, we don’t tend to think of it as spiritual, but we don't know they did either.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  So maybe there really isn't that much difference between that Egyptian cat goddess in a dress on a column in ancient Egypt and Paul Klusman and his computer in Wichita, Kansas.


PAUL KLUSMAN:  You both know what the deal is. You come over and set up the lights and the camera and get the cats and the costumes and you see what you can get.

SARAH LEMANCZYK:  For On the Media, I’m Sarah Lemanczyk.


Black and orange stray cat sittin' on a fence…


BOB GARFIELD:  That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Zac Spencer, Megan Teehan and Reema Khrais. Our show was edited this week by our Senior Producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Justin Gerrish.

Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.


Paul Klusman, Jordan Shapiro, Scott Stulen and TJ Wingard


Sarah Lemanczyk