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Before Lil Bub: A Curated Look At How Cats Came To Dominate The Internet

“My personal M.O. is to take really silly subjects and look at them seriously,” says Jason Eppink, the assistant curator behind the exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Cats rule the Internet, and this epic feline achievement is being examined—and celebrated—in a new exhibit, “How Cats Took Over the Internet,” at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.

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“Cats on the Internet is something that the culture at large sees as frivolous, but the very fact that there is so much attention paid to this, I think, demands a deeper reading of the phenomenon,” says Jason Eppink, associate curator of digital media at the museum and the organizer of the exhibit.

Eppink, who doesn’t have a cat of his own, though he once cared for a rescue for a month, adds: “My personal M.O. is to take really silly subjects and look at them seriously.”

So while “How Cats Took Over the Internet” is, of course, full of all kinds of cute and funny cat videos, images and GIFs that will delight anyone who loves kitties, the exhibit also encourages visitors to consider how our habit of anthropomorphizing animals as well as our evolutionary drive to embrace cuteness play into our endless appetite for cat content on the Internet.

The exhibit also shows—through a detailed multimedia timeline of cats on the Internet—how the development of affordable technology for the production and distribution of media has given rise to user-generated content.

A key part of the exhibit, the timeline goes back 20 years, starting in 1995 with an entry on a cat-focused newsgroup that Eppink finds particularly interesting. “There were newsgroups broken down into every sort of conceivable interest, and one of them was a cat newsgroup, and in mid-’95 some people in the newsgroup started role-playing as their cats, typing and speaking in a dialect that was kind of like baby talk,” he says.

The Infinite Cat Project – PeachPhoto: Lena Marianne Arvola, courtesy of The Infinite Cat Project.

The timeline also includes the first “celebrity cat” Eppink could find. Her name (actually, she could have been a he—Eppink isn’t sure) was Kitty, and years before Lil BUB, Maru and Grumpy Cat became famous felines, Kitty was making a name for herself via a webcam feed set up in 1998 by a California company called Joint Solutions Marketing. “This was when webcams were really popular. People were setting them up, and if they had enough bandwidth, they would broadcast snapshots that would refresh every few minutes,” Eppink says, pointing out, “Until the mid-2000s, the bandwidth wasn’t really accessible for viewers, or really broadcasters, to make anything faster than that.”

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YouTube, founded in 2005, was a game-changer for cats on the Internet. YouTube co-founder Steve Chen was the first to upload a cat video on the site. But the clip of his cat Pajamas playing with a toy didn’t go viral. To this date, the video, which features a cute cat but suffers from poor production values, has just over 41,000 hits.

As part of “How Cats Took Over the Internet,” the Museum of the Moving Image will run a sampling of cat videos from YouTube and elsewhere chosen by Will Braden, the curator of the Internet Cat Video Festival as well as the man behind cat celebrity Henri, Le Chat Noir, on a non-stop loop in its amphitheater.

And an interactive section of the exhibit dubbed “What Did We Miss?” will allow visitors to use computer stations to add their favorite cat photos, GIFs and videos to the exhibit. “Unlike art, there’s no real gatekeepers [when it comes to the coolest cats on the Internet],” Eppink says. “Everyone has an equal voice, and I think it’s important to include these other voices in the exhibit.”

How Cats Took Over the Internet” exhibition at Museum of the Moving Image, August 7, 2015–January 31, 2016.

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About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com

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