Lil Bub will make an appearance at CatCon LA this weekend.
In some ways, cats and geeks go hand-in-hand. Cat-eared cosplay kids make anime conventions their homes away from home and Hello Kitty Con brought in oodles of fans last fall. Still, there aren’t a lot of places where feline fans can get together and talk about Whiskers and Sylvester while waiting in line to catch a glimpse of Lil Bub.
This weekend, cat pals will have an event of their own when CatCon LA makes its debut. The brainchild of Susan Michals, a writer/producer and caretaker of a Maine Coon named Miss Kitty Pretty Girl, CatCon is a two-day gathering that will bring together fans with artists, filmmakers, authors and others who are as passionate about creativity as they are about their pets. The reasons it exists are probably because of you.
“Cats are a Catch-22,” writes Michals in an email interview with Topless Robot. “They need you one moment, and they can’t be bothered with you the next.” For all their idiosyncrasies, though, cats have racked up followers on YouTube and Facebook and virtually any other site that relies on meme-worthy visuals to gain an audience. We questioned Michals, along with CatCon guests Scott Stulen and Rob Reger, on how cats got popular enough to earn their own convention.
1. You Made Cats the Viral Hit of the 21st Century.
Scott Stulen doesn’t have a cat, but he’s closely associated with the world on online felines. Back in 2012, when he was working for Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis as a programmer and curator, he created Internet Cat Video Festival. The film fest wasn’t really about cats – not in the thematic sense at least – rather, it was about online content IRL. “Cat videos seemed like an obvious thing,” says Stulen.
Since the film fest launched, it has traveled to nine countries and 175 cities. While Stulen, who now lives in Indianapolis, has since passed on the leadership torch of the festival, he is still a cat video expert. After all, he estimates that he has seen “tens of thousands” of clips.
As someone who has likely sat through more cats-doing-weird-shit videos than the average person, he’s often asked, “Why are cat videos more popular than dog videos?” That’s a fair question; after all, dogs have reputations as friendly and heroic animals who can captivate an audience and save the day. Cats, on the other hand, are often seen as surly loners, like the goth kids of the animal world. Stulen, however, sees the attributes that make cats the less-likely charmers of the Internet as things that make you like them.
“They don’t perform for the camera,” says Stulen. “They aren’t looking to please. They’re more kind of their own person.” Because of that, he adds, people can “project” feelings and personalities onto them.
That perceived bad attitude can be part of what makes cats shine online as well. “At times, they’re being jerks to each other and to the people around them,” he says. “I think that’s one of the things that’s a very human characteristic and I think that’s one of the things that draws us to them and also what makes them perfect subjects for cat videos.”
He continues, “They do things that are, at times, mean and they do things that remind us of ourselves.”
2. You Have Turned the Cat Phenomenon Into Something Deeper Than a Social Media Trend.
The cat video might have risen to dominance with the dawn of YouTube, but it’s not a new thing. Rob Reger, creator of character Emily the Strange (and her four cats) points to the Bob Saget-era of America’s Funniest Home Videos, which featured clips of cats being weird, as an example.
Stulen agrees that filming cats is no new phenomenon. “I think the Internet just provided a much easier vehicle to share those with one another,” he says. He adds that Internet-based cat media has taken on a new role in that it gives cat owners chance to socialize. Unlike dog owners, he says, cat owners don’t have the opportunity to walk their pets to a park where the felines can play while the humans chat. “The cat park has become the Internet,” he says. “It’s become this space where people share their videos with one another, share those experiences.”
For Michals, the popularity of cats online added a new dimension to these time-honored household pets. “With the creation of I Can Haz Cheezburger, everything – in my mind – changed,” she responds. “Cats – who many people believe to just be assholes – found a whole new audience – suddenly they weren’t all jerks, and even when they were, with a funny caption attached, it had become something for amusement.” Michals points out that it’s not just people who have cats that latch onto cat-related media. “I think people a break from the everyday – a mental respite – [sic]and cat videos certainly fit the bill.”
3. You Have Turned Cats Into Celebrities.
Cats are no strangers to pop culture. Reger cites some of his personal favorites when we speak – Felix the Cat, the Cat in the Hat, Tom from Tom and Jerry – and they’re all characters with decades of history. As more ordinary cats become a part of pop culture, though, they tend to take on personae more similar to ones that exist in fictional worlds.
Reger recalls the time he met one particularly famous feline. “Grumpy Cat is not grumpy at all,” he says. “Grumpy Cat is the cutest, nicest, friendliest little cat. He just looks grumpy.” He adds, “We personify [cats]like we would with a cartoon character.”
For the caretaker of a famous cat, there might be some life-adjustments ahead. At CatCon, Stulen is moderating a panel called “My Cat Is Famous, Now What?” The panelists – including Mike Bridavsky and his cat Lil Bub, amongst others – will discuss the consequences of caring for an A-list feline.
The flip side of this is that Stulen now sees people looking towards cat videos as a ticket to fame and fortune. “People try to figure out the formula,” he says. “I am convinced that there isn’t a formula. If there was, I think a lot of us would have been doing it a long time ago.” If Stage Cat Parents become a thing, that will be your fault too.
4. You Like Art That’s Inspired by Cats.
It’s an obvious point, but people’s lives, and their work, can be influenced by their pets. Reger is a life-long friend of felines. He remembers a Siamese cat who would drink out of a toilet bowl. “I thought that was kind of cool,” he says. There were other cats that lived with him through the years. When we speak on the phone, Reger’s cats can be heard in the background.
Reger says that “the most influential” feline in his life was named Human Cat because he sat like a human. The name was shortened to Humes. The cat was fluffy and white and grew to have tan spots on his fur. “Everyone always thought he was a girl because he was so feminine and beautiful looking,” says Reger. When Reger lived in a warehouse in San Francisco, the cat would play hang out on rooftops. “Humes was always there,” Reger says of the cat who lived with him through his teenage and early adult years.
Reger’s famed character, Emily, also likes to chill with her cats. There’s Sabbath, who was named after an old black cat that Reger had. There was Miles, named after a cat owned by someone in Reger’s art department. Nee Chee is named after the Friederich Nietzsche because Reger wanted a “nihilist philosopher type of cat,” but the same is spelled so that young people can pronounce it easily. Mystery, the only female in the pack, was originally called Darth, but Reger was advised to change the name and avoid trouble. For fans of Emily the Strange, the cats are a draw too. Some have even picked their own favorites. Reger says that Sabbath and Mystery are pretty popular.
“A little known secret is that Emily is Mystery and Mystery is Emily,” says Reger, noting that this story goes into more detail in the comic 13th Hour. Emily fans, the ones who pay attention to cats, do pick their favorites from the group. Sabbath and Mystery are the most popular, he says. Reger will be talking more this weekend about how cats have had an impact on his work.
5. Like Geek Culture, You Have Made Cat Culture Sort of Mainstream.
The rise of cat culture roughly coincides with the rise of geek culture. As more people were busting up over Lolcats, so were more people publicly nerding out over comic books and sharing the Star Wars greeting, “May the Fourth be with you.” Stulen does see a connection between the two phenomena. “I don’t know if you can call those subcultures anymore because they’re so prevalent and large,” he says. “I think [the Internet]became a vehicle for a lot of those cultures to gather together and realize that there are actually a lot of them out there.”
And as cats and geeks become more visible, there are certainly more people who want to be a part of the movements. “People are proud to be part of cat culture and they’re proud to be part of geek culture and they’ve become very mainstream and embraced,” he says.
With that in mind, could CatCon become a major, attention-grabbing event that attracts press from across the globe? Will we start to see paparazzi hanging around local hotels waiting for Internet-famous felines to step outside the building? Hey, if that could happen at San Diego Comic-Con, it could happen anywhere.
6. Like Geek Culture, You Want Cat Culture to Go Beyond the Stereotypes.
Luke Chueh (used with permission)
Love and Allergies by Luke Chueh from “Cat Art Show” (2014)
Let’s go back to the pre-CatCon days of 2014. Michals curated “Cat Art Show,” wherein artists followed the theme of “cats as muse and inspiration.” There were a lot of well-known artists involved in the show, like Shepard Fairey, Tim Biskup, Luke Chueh and Rob Reger.
“Cat Art Show” did well. In fact, “Cat Art Show 2: The Sequel” is in the works for this fall. It’s impact, though, has to do with more than just the art. Through the exhibition, Michals came up with the idea for the convention. “I was introduced to a lot groovy people there, (cat fans of course) who were really into chic and hip cat fashion, furnishings and art,” writes Michals in an email interview. Because of that, she wanted to create an event that brought together the various aspects of cat culture, while going against the “cat person” stereotype. She took great care in bringing in vendors and designing the look of the event and brought in Reger to make one of the images that’s used on CatCon materials. It was a task that she says required “a lot of research and hiring a lot of people.”
There’s a charitable aspect to CatCon as well. A portion of the ticket price is set to go to FixNation and Best Friends L.A. will be on site to handle pet adoptions at the convention.
7. You’re Making Bizarre Stuff with Cats and We Want to See It.
Stulen remarks that his favorite cat video isn’t an obvious choice. It’s called “Boots and Cats” and it’s an onslaught of images reflective of the title and a song that repeats the words “boots” and “cats” until they become hypnotic. It’s quite unusual and representative of the different paths cat media can take.
“I’m always surprised to see something new,” says Stulen. “It doesn’t get redundant at a point.”
Just as there’s a lot more to the geek world than Marvel films, there is more to explore in the realm of the cat than the biggest YouTube hits. Events like this can give people a place to dig deeper into the fandom.
CatCon LA takes place Saturday, June 6 and Sunday, June 7 from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. at The Reef in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets run from $25 through $100. Kids tickets start at $15 and children under 4 years of age can get in for free. Note that your own cat cannot gain entrance to the event. Head to the CatCon LA website for more information.