Meowing Toward Gomorrah: Internet Cats at the Museum of the Moving Image

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I entered the Museum of the Moving Image’s newest exhibit, How Cats Took Over the Internet, ready to embrace all manner of batshit feline paeans. I knew better than to expect paintings (too bad), but I still welcomed the possibility of lasers or innovative textiles. Maybe a giant papier-mâché cat head. “Too much” is not a declaration that often passes a cat lover’s lips.

Instead I found two almost empty rooms: the first an amphitheater with rows of white benches facing a large screen, and the space right behind it a small gallery with a series of slides and video clips projected directly onto the walls. A lonely Mac sat on a desk in the middle of the room. “Reel it in, lady,” this minimalism warned. “There’s a lot more to see in this museum that doesn’t involve cats.”

And it’s true: The greatest part about How Cats Took Over the Internet is its cheerful disregard for how much you care to invest in it. Not into cats and the fanaticism surrounding them? The show’s placement, close to the museum entrance, allows you to breeze right past. Or maybe you think, Cats are okay, but that doesn’t mean I want to learn anything. Geez—can’t we just zone out to some funny cat videos? You sure can! Since the amphitheater is front and center, viewers don’t have to “earn” their sit-down in front of a 24-minute loop of highlights from the Walker Art Center’s inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival. (Some of my favorites from the batch are Charlie Schmidt’s Keyboard Cat, Kittens Inspired by Kittens and, of course, Henri.)

But for fans eager to chart cats’ Nyan-esque streak toward internet stardom (yup, she’s there too), the exhibit delivers. First comes a wall confirming that cats did exist prior to the web and were celebrated through comics and TV—snaps for Morris, Felix, Garfield and Hello Kitty—with proof that we’ve been dressing them in humiliating costumes for our own selfish jollies since the late 1800s.

At the heart of the exhibit, “Cats on the Internet: A Timeline” offered some surprises even for this know-it-all. I can live with my hazy recollections of the Meowchat forum and Cat of the Day posts back in the 1990s, but I may never forgive myself for not witnessing the Infinite Cat Project at its 2003 advent. I maintain that cats’ web Waterloo was won when user-generated lolcats invaded the 4chan site in 2006; these images are still everywhere, and if you’ve not yet created one of your own, this is where the museum’s Mac comes into play.

Holding court at the present-day end of the timeline is the hilariously coined “Celebrity Cat Industrial Complex,” featuring an imposing image of one of its poster children, Princess Monster Truck. If it depresses you that Grumpy Cat and Lil BUB—the Streisand and Beyoncé of cat royalty—make more money in a year through product endorsement deals, appearances and merchandise than you’ll make in your lifetime, just remember: It’s your fault (well, mine, too). Our insatiable appetite for quirky, funny-looking kitties has made this level of celebrity a foregone conclusion.

The exhibit’s last few walls gamely try to offer some context for cat madness. “Looking at the Numbers” presents a series of charts purporting that dogs are just as popular as cats on such sites as Buzzfeed and YouTube. Sure, dogs. Okay. “Why Are Cats So Popular?” supports the universality of cat videos as stress relievers and cyber snack breaks during endless workdays; it also theorizes that cat owners crave “virtual parks” where they can bond over their pets, since cats don’t socialize publicly like dogs. “Watching Cats” reveals the spectrum of anthropomorphic emotions we ascribe to cats—embarrassed, sad, sassy, protective, shocked—with adorable examples. And finally, “A Global Perspective” reveals some other countries’ attitudes toward cats, as well as their own culturally revered animals: llamas in Mexico, bears in Russia, and goats and pigs in Brazil.

By this point, even I was a bit catted out (it does happen). So much of this exhibit is literally at your fingertips, and I can’t stress enough how many other amazing things are on display at the Museum of the Moving Image that are just as worthy of your time. And let’s be honest: Cats aren’t relinquishing their spot at the top of the internet heap anytime soon. To jackhammer this point, with perfect timing, my editor for this piece reminded me that Lil BUB has released an album. Of course she has. Of course.

How Cats Took Over the Internet is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image, in Astoria, Queens, through February 21, 2016.

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Photos: Thanassi Karageorgiou/Museum of the Moving Image