I became a Walker Member because of the Internet Cat Video Film Festival.
Disclosure: I have written for MNArtists.org, which is run by the Walker, so I received one check earlier this year from the Walker Art Center, but that has nothing to do with this post.
Gimmicky arts events aren’t really my thing, unless you can explain to me why the gimmick fits the art and they go together well. A recent literary party took place at a boxing gym, and I had no idea why, except that I guess the party-throwers wanted to do something attention-grabbing. I think they were trying to say that writing is like fighting. Another literary party evidently incorporated burlesque, I guess because writing is like stripping? I like seeing an easily definable reason for an arts gimmick to fit the art. Otherwise, you’re just putting things together that people will like. That’s often successful— Family Guy was a hit tv show that thrived on that sort of gimmick— but it’s not my bag.
Finding the correct form for what you want to say is a big part of being an artist. Form and content should complement each other. This is a hard thing to find. Most writers and artists aren’t very good at it.
If you read national or some local critical coverage of the Internet Cat Video Film Festival last August, you had a lot of people asking whether it was art, and whether a national arts beacon had a place showing videos of cats from the internet. What most places didn’t address was that the Cat Video Film Festival completely fit the mission of Walker Open Field.
When I was trying to get into the community arts thing, I went to the Open Field’s inaugural reception. It was bland and boring, with a lot of the future-positive types spouting a lot of theory about commons. It seemed that a project like Open Field would have zero-impact on the actual systems of the way that the world functions. But I liked the idea of Open Field— a space for games, a place to utilize the Walker’s grounds so that everyone could participate. To reserve Open Field, all you had to do was send an email to the organizer and pick a time.
My project, Twin Cities Runoff, hosted two events at Open Field in the first two years it was opening. One was well-attended; one was not so much. Generally, we’d go to the Walker and see other not so much well-attended Open Field events, with enthusiastic and earnest staff throwing their whole into each proposed activity. There was bullwhip-cracking, LARPing, knitting, yoga. Open Field was just a place to do fun stuff on the pretty grass.
And it fit. Most people who wrote about the event at the Walker didn’t look at the Open Field website and didn’t take the time to find out what the space was. If you asked “But is this art?” about the Cat Festival, you were just hacking away, trying to fill your post quota for your blogjob. Open Field had no effect on the high art on the inside of the museum. Most of the activities were a little silly, designed to connect you with other people and see the art in not-typically-artful things. I’m not a fan of the “everyone’s an artist” bit, either, but with Open Field, the content fit the form. It’s extra space; why not harness that extra creativity?
And the Cat Video Film Festival accomplished both of Open Field’s goals: as I laughed along with the cat videos—and my face hurt from smiling after the damn thing was done—I connected with 10,000 other audience members. I also saw the extra creativity in cat-video-makers’ lives harnessed into something sort-of artistic. (Also, the fact that the videos were very well curated and well presented made it much more enjoyable. It could have been sloppy, but the production was perfect.)
The Walker was also one of the first major arts institutions to recognize the importance of film and video art, too, so that fit the Cat Video Film Festival as well, if you really want to think about it.
Open Field Coordinator Scott Stulen said, “I thought it would be just 12 of us sitting around the picnic tables, watching cat videos on our laptops.” And really, that was what most of the Open Field events looked like! Just a few people sitting around, doing things marginally related to art on some picnic tables. But it was fascinating to see something so small become so successful. I was proud of Open Field and proud of the Walker. I was also proud of my community; I’m a cat person, and they are cat people too.
The Walker’s had a run of great programming lately. The 1980s show was phenomenal, and the John Waters Absentee Landlord installation was wonderful. Cindy Sherman’s coming up. My favorite Jenny Holzer is sitting there, in the sculpture garden, all perfect-like. This is all good stuff, and, admittedly, very marketable to a lady like me. I like museums; always have.
But as I’m thinking about planning my arts giving a little more carefully, it was an easy choice to become a Walker member. The cats weren’t gimmicks. They were pretty purrfect. Other arts organizations could take some cues from the Walker.