Fiber Arts & Fibersheds – A Call to Dismantle the “Bystander” Effect

Fiber arts can provide powerful social commentaries. I visited the Craft & Folk Art Museum‘s New Directions Exhibit in Los Angeles, and was astounded by the work of June Lee in the group exhibit that was juried by the Textile Society of America.

June Lee’s “Bystander” sculptures address the social “bystander effect” issue. Lee explains that the term “Bystander Effect” was developed in 1964, after the death of Kitty Genovese who was stabbed outside of her home in Queens NYC; 38 people witnessed the crime and did nothing to prevent it from occurring though Kitty yelled for help. To highlight this issue, Lee created several 8″ unique bystanders, which represent us as unique human beings. The bystanders stand in two distinct positions, either with their arms crossed over their chests or behind their backs. The poses suggest a lack of willingness to help.

The interplay between the “bystander” effect and art in a museum is intriguing because we are commonly positioned to be “bystanders” observing art. However, June Lee invites us to break down this passive relationship and engage with her art. As we crouch down to observe the unique “bystanders,” we also become a part of her art by mimicking the “victim” that is presented as a stark contrast in a solid color and large size. We subconsciously become a part of her art as we consciously observe it.

Bystander by Artist June Lee, 2011-2014; CAFAM Los Angeles CA
Bystander by Artist June Lee, 2011-2014; CAFAM
Bystander by Artist June Lee, 2011-2014; CAFAM Los Angeles CA
Bystander by Artist June Lee, 2011-2014; CAFAM

June Lee states:

Human beings cannot live alone; thus they form groups and societies. Ironically, however, this characteristic of human beings does not guarantee that individuals always form intimate ties with others. In the past, Agricultural society allowed individuals to depend on and support each other and form naturally intimate relationships as farming couldn’t be done alone. They shared in joys and sorrows of life, helping each others from sowing to reaping… With the onset of industrialization, people no longer needed help from each other and to form close ties with others. Before we knew it, people were forming societies in which individuals were completely indifferent to each other. 

The contrasts of time (past, present) and community structures (agricultural, industrial) provides an explanation for the “bystander effect.” It is critical to consider the role of community-based activism in both rural and urban spaces.

With the recent Fibershed movement, community members from both urban and rural spaces come together to collectively create healthy clothing and textiles value chains. As fibersheds emerge, they must actively include everyone who can contribute to its success. This includes H2A guest sheepherders who come from Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Mexico, Nepal, and Mongolia. H2A sheepherders come on temporary work visas to provide their expertise and labor on large sheep farms in the West (CA, ID, CO, TX, UT, WY…). Guest sheepherders face poor work and living conditions and many have filed law suits against the Western Range Association, a large employer for the sheep industry. One Peruvian sheepherder expressed that his experience was a form of modern day slavery.

In response to these injustices, Fibershed farmers, artisans, and educators must not remain “bystanders” to this 21st century violation of human rights. Guest sheepherders must be included in Fibershed discourses as they significantly bring their expert knowledge and provide 24/7 labor to help sustain the current US sheep industry that provides food and wool fiber.

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