A Crowdfunded Campaign Is Using Art to Flesh Out What a Bystander Is

The Bystander Anthology is a collection of graphic narratives from 50+ South Asian artists deconstructing what it means to be bystander.

In 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment in New York as neighbours seemingly ignored her screams. This grisly incident birthed an enduring cultural symbol which influences how we think about indifference even today – the Bystander Effect.

In 2019, the lack of patience with apathy feels completely appropriate. The climate emergency is causing mass migration and heat wave deaths while the media and government look away; mob lynchings are routine and fake news is the new truth. It seems clearer than ever that we need to act now.

So what’s stopping us? Is it all just privilege? And who makes up this ‘us’?

The bystander effect was popularised by researchers John Darley and Bibb Latane, who tried to understand what creates collective indecision. In brief: the more people who witness something bad, the less likely it is that any one person will do something about it. Each thinks someone else will take responsibility.

The researchers alert us to the false idea of a ‘good’ person doing ‘the right thing’ in any situation. Their work examines the different pressures that cause bystander behaviour, and by extension, how to transcend it.

Now, a group of 50+ South Asian artists – women, queer and non-binary individuals, led by the Kadak Collective – seeks to deconstruct this word. The Bystander Anthology is a collection of graphic narratives, crowdfunding through Kickstarter till June 17.

Bystander Anthology. Credit: Kadak Collective.

The Wire spoke with three of the editors leading Bystander in a series of conversations to understand the process behind this ambitious project, the politics of inclusion and the urgency of art in itself vs as a tool for campaigning, among other things.

How it all began

Designer Akhila Krishnan and seven other creatives formed the Kadak Collective in 2016 to address the need for female South Asian representation in the comics scene. They’ve quickly gained a reputation for sharp aesthetics and feminist politics.

“All of us have day-jobs,” Krishnan tells me. “We see Kadak as a space where we can experiment. With Bystander, we wanted to be really ambitious about our practice and where the collective is going next. One of the first things we wanted to address is the idea of a South Asian identity.”

Bystander arose from a previous idea around women in public and private spaces – one which didn’t get grant funding. That project also looked at the #MeToo movement in India and its dialogue around “allyship and action”. When writer Aarthi Parthasarathy drew the many threads together with the word ‘bystander’, it resonated. They’d hit upon the central idea for something big.

Bystander is Kadak’s most ambitious project yet, which they hope will lay the ground for bigger collaborations across South Asia. To bring in more nuance, two editors from outside the design world were invited to join – gender justice campaigner at Oxfam Gopika Bashi and poet-educator Sabika Abbas Naqvi.

What’s the narrative?

Now that the concept notes are in, Krishnan’s excitement is palpable. “I’ve never seen this range of stories in an anthology before – usually when you say South Asia, it’s India/Pakistan-centric and the countries are shown as so polarised. Here we’re saying no, it’s a South Asian thing.”

“We tried to create unconventional pairings for each piece,” she says.

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In one such pairing, partners Nandini Moitra and Upasana Agarwal, who co-run a queer art space in Kolkata, have a piece on queer relationships and how they can take on patriarchal structures. “Only they can author a piece like that in a way that is authentic,” Krishnan says.

One of her personal favourites, by Jasyjot Singh Hans, looks at navigating queer spaces in the US as a Sikh. “People have never seen someone like him in a turban, and with his physicality. It’s so vulnerable of him to share.”

All the rewards for supporting various tiers of the Bystander Anthology’s Kickstarter Campaign. Credit: Kadak Collective.

There’s a piece by Dr Shilpa Das of the National Institute of Design on disability in fiction and numbers. There’s work on nature and climate change by Supriya Tirkey and Isuri M.H. of Sri Lanka.

Supriya is from a tribal community in Jharkhand; her piece deals with environmental degradation and urban migration. Isuri’s is about magical realism and connection to the environment.”

The anthology is rich in non-fiction. “A lot of our work is rooted in real life. I do think women tend to take this approach more,” Krishnan says.

Kickstarting democratic narratives

All three editors are quite manic about crowdfunding at this point. “It’s a democratic way of publishing… the Kickstarter team in the UK has been amazing,” Krishnan says. But it’s also all or nothing – the highest risk.  

“We have a huge support group because we were the first visible collective on the scene, of primarily women or artists who identified as queer,” says Krishnan. “We thought we’d look to our supporters for how to get a self-published project out.”

The Bystander Sticker Set by Kruttika Susarla is one of the rewards for backing the Kickstarter Campaign. Credit: Kruttika Susarla.

In a way, this sort of ambitious project could only have come in 2019. Comic anthologies have always done well with crowdfunding in the West. It allows creators to side-step the benevolence of big publishing houses and create something strange – the whole point of the internet since the days of the first blogs.

The graphic narrative indie wave came a little late to India, helped along by Manta Ray and later Studio Kokaachi. In recent years, zine-culture has been thriving, as showcased by Bombay Underground, Gaysi zine-fest, DECAF and Indie Comix Fest. With Instagram providing an easy link between artists and audiences, the appetite for in-depth visual commentary seems to only be increasing. Just last year, Pia Alize Hazarika and Malathi Jogi successfully crowdfunded Feminist AF, published by Ad Astra Comix.

Now Kadak is trying everything to go from 60% funded to the full target in the next few days. They’re talking to friends and family, leveraging social media influence through Instagram posts featuring the different contributors (each of whom brings their own network) and an @Genderlog takeover on Twitter.

Perhaps surprisingly, “crowdfunding really works through newsletters and mailing lists. Follower counts don’t necessarily translate to cache,” Krishnan tells me.

On a contributor list that goes beyond token diversity

“We approached people who have interesting voices and work,” Krishnan says. “We compiled an initial wish-list of contributors based on a few factors – their existing body of work, how their identities would engage with the theme, their areas of interest, what their social media said about them… about 96% said yes on the strength of what they knew about Kadak.”

Portraits of some of the contributors. Credit: Shreyas R. Krishnan.

With explicitly feminist politics, something to consider seriously is inclusion – both in the contributor list and in readership. Given that our extended social networks, the universities we attended, the people likely to have clout on social media and write in English – all depend on a degree of privilege, how does Bystander avoid mirroring these exclusions?

“We went in with the best intentions but I don’t know if we were successful,” Krishnan says.

They were particularly conscious of geographic representation. And there are many contributors they didn’t know personally. Reem Khurshid, a reputed Pakistani journalist is one. Thimpu Comics, a group from Bhutan, was found online.

“A lot of it is people committing time without any guarantee of a pay-off. So there’s privilege in taking a risk like this,” Krishnan says.

Bystander will also be a web anthology. “Print is more bespoke while web allows you to integrate moving image and sound, gifs, scrolling – it’s not necessarily panel to panel. Digital is pushing the form and making print actually react and maximise what that medium offers,” Krishnan says.

Art for art’s sake and shifting the ‘normal’

Gopika Bashi has spent over ten years in gender justice campaign work. We talked about the importance of ‘art for art’s sake’ vs the longstanding tradition of using art for social justice advocacy.

“The approach to art and design has largely been: how can we communicate our message through art? And Bystander can be a way of flipping that. It can be an end in itself – putting out a work of feminist art in itself without any other purpose … that’s quite groundbreaking,” she says.

There’s a lot to be gained from making artists equal stakeholders in communication, she feels. “The length and breadth of what we received shows that visual artists have a lot to say – as people working on issues of gender, caste and racial justice we have to keep the larger picture in mind. And we can’t underestimate the importance of cultural production.”

Bystander is almost like a documentation of the here and now,” she says. “Everything now is so binary. Bystander shows multiple narratives because we don’t have enough of that.”

Credit: Kadak Collective.

It’s also an exploration in shifting norms.

“The bystander is always perceived as a position of privilege – there’s always a judgement about ‘why didn’t they intervene?’. But people may be intervening in different ways and you don’t know,” Bashi says.

“The idea of complicity is also something we’re challenging, with multiple narratives of marginalisation. Why are people complicit? When you don’t have power or privilege you can be forced into complicity. In India, if say a Muslim woman is witnessing a lynching – can she always intervene?”

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How exclusionary governance creates bystanders

Sabika Abbas Naqvi founded Sar e Rahguzar, taking poetry to the streets beyond the ‘woke’ circles who always show up to events, as she puts it. In addition to editing, she’s collaborating with Samya Arif from Pakistan on a piece about the similarities and contrasts in lived female experience in the twin cities of Delhi and Karachi.

“We’re engaging with current politics a lot,” she says. “Because of this current government, bystanders are multiplying. Reclamation and subversion is required.”

“Those who have voted for, and are happy for this government – those people have become bystanders to the misery that the government may be causing to oppressed communities. They’re also creating bystanders in the privileged people who’ve given up hope. And also in the marginalised, who are looking upon all this as bystanders… unable to participate, bystanders to the economic and social changes, the right wing political polarisation this government is creating. So you have bystanders through fear, through compliance, in so many ways.”

Lost in Translation Postcards by Priya Dali are among the rewards for supporting the Kickstarter campaign for Bystander. Credit: Priya Dali via Kadak Collective.

In her hometown of Lucknow, the growing atmosphere of right-wing radicalisation has brought fear right into her mohalla, she says. “People often tell me our fear is baseless. Only if you stand in our shoes you’d understand what we go through on a daily basis.” 

In the mainstream narrative, art has often been cast as an elite means of conversation. But all along people in the margins have used it in many forms of resistance. Bystander is part of that tradition. 

Crowdnewsing, where Sabika worked previously, ran a successful crowdfunder for Jignesh Mewani’s campaign. She cites this as an example of how democratic crowdfunding can be. “If an anthology as political as Bystander is crowdfunded, it shows how many people are invested in the idea. It will open up more spaces for such kind of collaborations.”

The Bystander Anthology is crowdfunding till June 17. Find their Kickstarter Campaign here.