SXSW: Look who Grumpy Cat has upstaged

The annual music, film and technology conference South By Southwest boasts a stellar lineup of guests this year: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, NSA leak Edward Snowden, music superstars Lady Gaga, Blondie, Spandau Ballet and Coldplay, and environmental advocate Al Gore.

But have they all been eclipsed by a pussycat with a miserable expression etched on its face

The so-called Grumpy Cat – a two year old mixed-breed cat which became an internet superstar in 2012 because of its seemingly unhappy demeanour – is also attending the conference in the Texas capital, Austin, and appears to be its breakout star.

The queue to meet the fussy feline, who is being hosted by the website in their exhibition space Mashable House, is said to be long and packed with fans who want to meet the cat – real name Tardar Sauce – and pose for photos.

Being the veteran she is, this is Grumpy Cat’s second South By Southwest – also known as SXSW. In addition to the conference, Grumpy Cat has a full charity calendar, including helping to deliver cat food meals to the Friends of the Austin Animal Centre.

The cat, which is owned by Arizona-based Tabatha Bundesen, became an internet star when Bundesen’s brother Bryan posted images of it on the social news site Reddit. The rest reads like a story of rags-to-ritches Hollywood fame, albeit in feline terms.

The annual conference began in 1987 as a music industry conference but has in recent years stepped from the fringes into the mainstream, and now ranks alongside major film festivals, Comic-Con and the Consumer Electonics Show as a major cultural event in the calendar.

Its topics range from serious panels on trends in the music, film and interactive industries, as well as some topics best described as slightly esoteric. One sure to attract fans of Grumpy Cat is a seminar titled Cat Cash: The Economy of Internet Cat Videos.

“Feline flicks transcend language and culture and have demonstrated an unrivaled traction with audiences; with many cat video stars moving successfully from fleeting meme to established brand,” the brochure declares.

The meat-frock loving music star Lady Gaga is the festival’s hot music ticket, performing as well as delivering the music keynote speech. Past music keynotes were delivered by Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Geldof, Quincy Jones and Lou Reed.

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And Julian Assange, no doubt accustomed to being the top ticket on any conference bill, had to surrender the main stage to Grumpy Cat and settle for a Skype link to the conference from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been living for almost two years.

His appearance, before a packed auditorium on the weekend, was billed as “a virtual conversation” with Benjamin Palmer from the creative agency Barbarian Group.

The pair discussed WikiLeaks, the shifting media landscape and Edward Snowden’s leaks from the American National Security Agency (NSA) but due to technical difficulties in Austin, the conversation was largely one-sided and Assange spoke at length.

“We’re all actually living in a world that we don’t understand,” he said. “[It is a] fictitious representation of the world [in which] the true nature of government power structures is obscured. We’re walking around constantly in this fog.”

Snowden, who lives in Russia and has been charged with violations of the US Espionage Act, is also appearing at South by Southwest via video link. One US congressman, Republican Mike Pompeo, has released a statement demanding Snowden’s appearance be cancelled.

South By Southwest runs until March 16.

– Sydney Morning Herald