Some months ago, I put a dollar bill on my cat Zelda's head, took a picture and submitted it to cashcats.biz, then a fledgling Tumblr apparently devoted solely to images of cats with money. At the time, I didn't think much about why I thought it was funny. I'm just one of those internet cat people.
I can't even help it. When Facebook announced last month that it'd crack down on fake user accounts including cat profiles, I cringed guiltily. Not only does Zelda have a Facebook page, but she updates it regularly with her own frequently all-caps brand of communication, alternately surly and oblivious. Like a serial killer that secretly wants help, I keep pressing my cat's internet presence, hoping my friends will tell me I'm mental. Instead they keep friending her, texting me pictures of their own cats, posting videos on her wall. Online cat culture is serious business.
I actually have two cats, and the other one is frankly much more charming than Zelda (sorry, Zeldy). Yorda is just about two years old but has remained small. When I first adopted her, a rain-soaked runt my friends found in their cheese shop, she used a brownie pan for a litter box and virtually grew up in my lap, snoozing and cuddling while I wrote on my laptop. She likes to grab people's hands, can fetch a mouse toy, and often begs for attention by simply sitting as near to someone as possible, angling her head in a charming pose while gazing patiently with moist, sincere eyes.
I've been asked why Zelda is the one that gets the Facebook page, the trendy Tumblr photos, the defined online "personality". At the risk of being excessively sentimental, I've always thought it's a way to feel close to my aging, indifferent ol' gal despite my more immediate (and reciprocal) relationship with the gregarious new baby.
And then I attended last night's Ca$h Cats-inspired art exhibit, a gallery show sprung from the now-flourishing Tumblr that had given my dollar-decorated Zelda a few seconds of internet fame. Held at the Dumbo Loft gallery space in Brooklyn, Time Magazine declared (warned?) that it would be "the hipster cat event of 2012." Awesome, now I'm not just a crazy cat lady, but I'm also a hipster. I write articles about how I hate calling creative people hipsters. This probably isn't helping. Oh, god.
The brains behind Ca$h Cats and the exhibit itself is Will Zweigart, who tells me the original seed sprung from the concept of a "VIP room for cats." We talk in the gallery space, hung with curated portraits from the cashcats.biz site portraying sloe-eyed felines indifferently sprawling alongside all manner of currency. Zweigart says at first it was just money, but then he began to receive submissions involving other status items. In one photo, a cat blankly lies alongside a rifle and a fan of big bills. Submissions involving piles of cocaine were left off the site. Seriously.
The cashcats.biz Tumblr has been alive for about 20 months, and has seen about 1000 submissions, 200 of which were actually selected for publication. I suddenly feel a little bit special about smug Zelda and her crumpled buck. The tagline for last night's gallery show is "How the 1 purrcent really lives," and it also features art inspired by the Tumblr: paintings, a taxidermy of a kitten batting at a wire-hung rain of dollars, and an illuminated, church window-style glasswork of a cash-wielding calico. Particularly popular was the big monocle-cat Pusheen canvas – those animated GIFs are just everywhere these days.
Somewhat disappointingly perhaps, Zweigart himself does not seem to be a crazy cat guy. His girlfriend has a cat and his parents have a couple, but he does not effuse about them. He's no hipster, either, but a clean-cut social media marketing guy; after his "sketchy Santas" collection resulted in a Simon & Schuster book deal and a sale to the Cheezburger network, he wanted to do a non-commercial venture just for fun.
"[Cats are] already acting like the ruling class," he tells me. "They look and act like they own the place, and I wanted to recontextualize some of their facial expressions. If you just take a normal cat's facial expression and add money and status signifiers, you can really start to pull out the meme, this relationship between the cat and the money."
"We know the cat places no value in that money," Zweigart explains, as a plate of fig and goat-cheese crostini goes by. "But if you look at the photos, there's this sense of ownership and attitude."
In order for a photo to be actually published on cashcats.biz, "there has to be some relationship between the cat and the environment," Zweigart explains. "We're looking for that sense of awareness in relation to the money… a lot of these photos really create a situation, just by changing the environment with those additional things."
"It's that 1 percent, for cats," he says. "You know when you've made it."
Just recently, Gideon Lewis-Kraus penned a fascinating Wired story charting his journey to the heart of internet cat culture in Japan. He wanted to meet Maru — with some 158 million YouTube views, among the most popular internet cats of all time – but was spurned, in part due to the highly private nature of fanaticism in Japan.
But visiting cat cafes, where customers pay to spend time socializing with cats, he mused on the "infuriating" reticence of felines and concluded that it's precisely the animals' total lack of interest in reciprocating affection that makes cats so compelling in this particular time. While everyone seems to be chasing attention and the promised riches of the social media age, the cat will only offer acknowledgment on its own terms, and mainly when you don't ask.
As something of an amateur internet cat culturist myself, I recently hypothesized that cats in particular received preferential treatment online – despite the fact a greater share of Americans, at least, claim to prefer dogs when asked to choose – because they more closely align with the internet user's sense of self. Dovetailing with Lewis-Kraus' findings, a study I cited specifically said people who identify as "cat people" are "more neurotic" than self-styled "dog people.
Cats were crowned as a mascot early on, when the internet was first colonized by users quickly desensitized to the extreme shock imagery that became widely accessible for the first time. Attaching to something fluffy was both an act of subversion and an essential psychological buffer, and the cat was the perfect choice. Maybe it's an evergreen icon for the alienated and overwhelmed.
On the eve of Obama's nomination speech at the DNC, where the president passionately criticized policies that favor the dispassionate rich at the expense of the working class, the Ca$h Cats' exhibit's indifferent cats snobbishly squatting on piles of money does take on an implicit subversive quality. It's especially thought-provoking at this show where Brooklyn's young nod along to M.I.A. and gratefully clutch drink tickets in the line for beer. I run into friends who talk grimly about the mad scrabble for employment in New York City.
Writes Lewis-Kraus: "The more neurotic the cat owner—the more desperate for fuzzy comfort and nuzzly security and unconditional affection—the briefer the interactions that damn cat would allow."
Zweigart tells me his event received some 900 RSVPs. Proceeds from art and merchandise sales benefit the Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition, a long-standing local rescue org particularly beloved for its "cat loft," a popular orphanage for would-be kitty adoptees. As enthusiasm around the Ca$h Cats' cute provocation of classism ramped up, "we decided the cats should give back," Zweigart explains.He still has no plans to commercialize the concept through books, advertising or any other outlet, and has been delighted by the groundswell of crowdsourcing that helped add so much original art to the show.
I've realized my dull, disaffected, chubby Zelda makes a better internet subject than cheerful Yorda because she suits the paradigm more. When I put that money on her head, she just kind of lifted her chin, as if to say, so? What a privileged fat cat. Let's see if she still says nothing when they come for her Facebook page.