Late last week, Grumpy Cat was holding court in an undisclosed studio set on East Sixth Street. The 11-month old feline lounged sullenly on a plush maroon couch in a room that was decorated to look like a pseudo-Victorian parlor. She grudgingly tolerated the excited coos of the reporters and bloggers who had been selected for a coveted 15-minute “interview” window with one of the most famous cats on the Internet. “Don’t tell anyone where we are—we’d be mobbed,” one of the people involved in the video shoot told me.
The cat food company, Friskies, had flown Grumpy Cat to Austin for SXSW to participate in “Will Kitty Play With It?,” which Friskies dubbed “the first ever game show for cats!” (Also, for anyone who was wondering, the members of Friskies’s creative team have business cards shaped like cans of cat food and awesome titles like “Deputy Catmaginator.” And if you were the employee who thought of bringing in Grumpy Cat, you deserve a raise.)
Grumpy Cat attained Internet stardom last September, after Bryan Bundesen posted a few photos of the angry-looking creature on Reddit. When people argued that the cat looked Photoshopped, Bryan posted a video on YouTube. “I thought it would get some laughs,” he said. Grumpy Cat’s videos have now received more than 15 million views. Grumpy’s trip to SXSW was only her second time flying: in December, she traveled to New York to appear on the Today Show and to stop by the BuzzFeed offices, a visit which resulted in this remarkable slideshow.
Grumpy Cat spends most of her days in Morristown, Arizona, a town of 227 in rural Maricopa County, where she lives with Tabatha Bundesen, Bryan’s sister. Tabatha, a 27-year-old waitress at Red Lobster, named the kitty Tardar Sauce, perhaps after the mayonnaise-based condiment available in abundance at her workplace. Tabatha takes pictures of the cat and Bryan posts them on the web. He estimates he spends 20 to 30 hours a week maintaining the cat’s web presence.
“She’s an average cat 99 percent of the time,” Bryan said. (But what average cat stars in Russian ad campaigns?) And, despite her surly exterior, “she’s sweet in person,” Bryan said. Grumpy Cat and her brother Pokey suffer from a achondroplasia, a type of dwarfism. There was a third kitten in the litter which Tabatha gave away to a friend, but that kitten went missing. “I can’t believe I lost Grumpy’s sister,” Tabatha recounted her friend as saying.
Over the next two days, visitors excited to meet a real live meme lined up in the rain for hours to meet Grumpy at the Mashable tent, prompting a series of headlines in the vein of “The Biggest Celebrity at SXSW: Grumpy Cat” and “The unlikely star of SXSW: Grumpy Cat.”
And this wasn’t the only corner of SXSW Interactive dedicated to cats and their appeal on the Internet. Last Friday, Scott Stulen and Katie Hill, co-curators of the inaugural Internet Cat Video Film Festival at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, held a well-attended panel that wondered whether cat videos count as art.
Humans have been depicting cats in art since the time of ancient Egypt, and, now that everyone has a cell phone camera, “the possibilities for cuteness are unlimited,” Hill said. Given the popularity of cat videos, “an internet cat video festival was probably inevitable,” Hill said. They received more than 10,000 submissions, many of them from Russia and Asia, prompting Stulen to observe that “cat videos might be not just the language of the internet, but the universal language.”
While dog owners have spaces—dog parks—where they can get together and socialize with those who share their enthusiasm for canines, there’s no such space for cat owners. Enter the Internet. “There’s no cat park—the internet is the cat park,” Stulen said. “One goal of the festival was to see what would happen when we took an online community offline.” And what happened? 10,000 people showed up.
Hill said they plan to hold a second festival at the Minnesota State Fair this year and noted that several similar events have cropped up, including The Friskies awards and the (especially cringeworthy) Fresh Steps’ Catdance Festival. “Our love affair with cats is not slowing down,” Hill said.