Thursday marked the first time I’d ever talked to someone via phone while simultaneously watching his live stream — it was like a one-sided video chat, or the very definition of interactive TV. And I owe that mind-bending experience to Charlie Schmidt, an actor and artist best known for creating your friend and mine, Keyboard Cat.
While the original Keyboard Cat video was shot in 1984 (sadly, the original cat, Fatso, died in 2000), Schmidt has continued to play with the Keyboard Cat brand over recent years — and right now, he’s doing so with a Banksy-inspired twist.
Schmidt is currently in the middle of an ongoing live stream from his studio in Washington, in which he creates cat-themed art with a very clear inspiration: Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which explores the world of street art and how it has become commercialized. The project, known as Exit Through the Pet Shop, was launched with a trailer directly parodying the trailer for Gift Shop, and many of the pieces featured in Schmidt’s studio are directly reminiscent of work created by artists from the film like Banksy and Shepard Fairey.
Schmidt’s studio itself is reminiscent of Banksy’s L.A. debut, with weird motorized gadgets adding life to the live stream whenever Schmidt is off-camera. Schmidt’s four cats wander through the space like cats do; curling up on couches, sprawling across sheets of paper and occasionally gnawing at some of the gadgets. When one of them does something particularly cute (two of the cats love to groom each other), Schmidt turns the camera on them until they stop.
This includes Bento, a pliable orange tabby who has succeeded Fatso’s position at the keyboard for follow-up videos as well as projects like a recent ad for Wonderful Pistachios. Other notable figures featured in the Wonderful Pistachios ads include Jersey Shore‘s Snooki, Lewis Black and the Peanuts gang, but according to Schmidt the Keyboard Cat ad is the most viewed of them all.
Schmidt says that deals like the Wonderful Pistachios commercial and other opportunities to license Keyboard Cat have been a big part of how he’s been supporting himself over the last year: “It’s been very profitable,” he said via phone. And the offers keep rolling in — in the upcoming Fox animated film Rio, for example, a character voiced by will.i.am will recreate Keyboard Cat’s distinctive song and dance.
But the live stream hosted by Livestream.com, while relatively unpopulated (I tuned in on several occasions over the past three days, and never saw more than 12 viewers at any one time), is also helping Schmidt make money — specifically because of the art on display. Using the live stream and Paypal, Schmidt has sold well over a dozen pieces since he started streaming on Feb. 2.
This includes both the original works, including a painting done on a grid of $2 bills, and prints, which Schmidt does live on camera for potential buyers, interacting with them as he uses spray paint to stencil the decidedly Fairey-esque image of Keyboard Cat commanding you to “PLAY.” Fairey doesn’t seem to mind the imitation, though — he was one of the first to link to Pet Shop.
Schmidt has no plans to ever stop live-streaming. “I’ll keep going forever — why would I stop? It’s free,” he says. For him, it’s the sort of artistic experiment that Andy Warhol (one of his biggest influences) would have done, and it also connects him directly with his audience.
“I spent a lot of time in my life looking for customers. But you don’t need to live anywhere — you just need the internet,” he said. “You gotta just do what you’re gonna do, full blast.”
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