Long Story Short: Weird seeds, great art

BPAC is reopening this month.

Seedy scam

As if things couldn’t get weirder, people across the US in all fifty states—including here in Western New York—are receiving mysterious packages of seeds in the mail that they didn’t order, with a return address from China. Similar packages have also been arriving in Canada. The parcels are typically labeled as jewelry or toys, and there’s no way of knowing if they were really sent from China or somewhere else. State agriculture departments have also reported packages postmarked from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is telling anyone receiving the seeds to do the following:

Don’t handle them.

Store them somewhere children and animals cannot get at them.

Send the whole package and any other information you have to:

Office of the State Plant Health Director of New York

c/o Christopher Zaloga

United States Department of Agriculture

500 New Karner Rd.

Albany, NY 12205

And whatever you do, don’t plant them. Government officials say the seeds could grow into extremely tall beanstalks, which children would climb, getting into all sorts of trouble. Okay, not really, but they could sprout into invasive plants that would overwhelm indigenous vegetation. So far, the US Agriculture Department has identified fourteen different types of seeds from morning glories, mustard, cabbage, mint, sage, rosemary, and lavender, but they’re not ruling out that they might be nonnative varieties that could harm US commodity crops. Robin Pruisner, state seed control official (yes, there’s such a thing) at the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship in Iowa, says that, based on reports that some of the seeds have a purple coating, she is concerned they could be treated with something potentially damaging to crops.

US-China relations are at an all time low, as is US public opinion toward China, but there’s no indication that the seeds are a Chinese scheme to harm US agriculture. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin says China’s postal service strictly abides by restrictions on sending seeds. They say the records on the packages seem to be faked and ask the US government to please send the seeds to China for investigation. Which seems unlikely.  

What’s really going on?

US Government officials believe that the seeds are just part of a "brushing scam." What’s that, you ask? Companies—typically third-party foreign sellers—send items to addresses they find online. A genuine shipment must take place for an order to be considered valid, so the seller frequently ships the unsuspecting recipients some cheap item—in this case seeds. The fake orders boost a seller's rating, which makes it more likely that their products appear at the top of search results on e-commerce sites. They may also post glowing reviews using the names and mailing info of the people they send the items to, making their companies look even better.

Why should you care?

The Better Business Bureau says that if someone sent you an item like this, they have your name, address, and possibly your phone number—maybe even more. Here’s what they say you should do:

Change passwords and keep a close eye on your credit report, bank accounts, and credit card bills. Notify the retailer: look up the company that sent the seeds. If you can find a listing on a third-party retailer, contact that company’s customer service and report the brushing scam. Look up your name and address using a search engine. In some cases, you can see how public your personal information is.

File a BBB Scam Tracker report by visiting BBB.org/scamtracker

Can this get any stranger?   

Yes. WKBW news reports that dozens of people locally say they are receiving packages from China that they never ordered. And not just seeds. One guy got a package marked underwear, but it turned out to be masks (no comment on how one might wear them). Another woman got a bracelet. In the WKBW story, Melanie McGovern from the Better Business Bureau of Upstate NY urges anyone who gets such a package to do a "search of their name, email, usernames, and the area they live in." If you find a fake review attributed to you, contact the company and ask them to delete it.  If you find a review you did not post, McGovern says to contact the webpage and ask them to delete it.

A fan favorite fundraiser adapted for the times

I’ve previously written about the extraordinary efforts local arts organizations have been making under the COVID pause to compensate for canceled fundraising events. One such event is Hallwalls’ Mid Summer Night’s Draw (counterpart to Mid Winter’s Night Draw), which the art center has been holding since 2012. These highly anticipated live drawing rallies—which, full disclosure, I often participate in as an artist—feature a party atmosphere, live artmaking, and an opportunity to snag a work of art at relatively low cost. "It’s been pretty common for people to tell us it’s their favorite art event of the year," says Visual Art Curator John Massier, who first conceived of the idea.

In preCOVID years, reveling guests watched as artists created works in two tightly timed forty-five-minute rounds. Then the audience bid on the freshly minted works, even as some were still drying.  "With current restrictions on gathering and an inability to welcome everyone back to [Hallwalls’ home in] Babeville for a live drawing rally," says Massier, "we didn’t want a season to go by without some version of the event." What they came up with is A Mid Summer Night’s Draw – Zoom Edition.

Going online

While this iteration lacks the social nature of the in-person fundraiser, it features two aspects the regular version can’t offer. First, the thirty-minute auction time limit at the live event is replaced by an online timer that allows much more opportunity for people to view and bid on the art. The online auction concludes at 7 p.m. this Wednesday, August 5, so it’s not too late for readers to join in.

Secondly, you don’t have to wait forty-five minutes as the artists create their works (not that people at the live events mind). You can view the completed work right now and see the latest bid by clicking on the easy to navigate website—with or without registering for the auction.  A few weeks ago, twenty-one artists, including a number of familiar names, set up cameras to record themselves making a work, as Massier timed them on Zoom. "Recording the artists through nine different Zoom sessions made me even more acutely aware of how fast forty-five minutes goes by when you're drawing from scratch," says Massier. "Which underscores how accomplished the participating artists are and how hard they work to complete their drawings." It was the first time the curator was able to watch the artists do their thing, because as the event organizer and master of ceremonies, he’s ordinarily too busy.

The twenty-one recordings were compressed into a snappy thirty-minute time-lapse video that’s available online, along with shots of the finished work. "Hallwalls wants two things," says Massier, "that everyone stay safe and that we are all able to get together again in person in the near future."

Of course, they will be happy if you go online and bid in the meantime.

Good news for local art lovers

While art enthusiasts await the reopening of the Albright-Knox Northland facility, with an exciting exhibition by Brooklyn–based artist Swoon (more on this in the September issue of Spree), there’s another eagerly awaited museum opening about to happen.

The Burchfield-Penney Art Center (BPAC) is announcing today (Monday, August 3) that it’s about to reopen with a member’s preview weekend this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Masks are required. (How times have changed. In the sixties, that would have been "formal attire required.")

Then, beginning August 14, the museum will open to the general public each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Members and those at increased risk, including seniors, are invited to attend from 10 a.m.–11 a.m. The Center will limit attendance to twenty-five percent capacity. Social distancing and masks are required. The Museum Cafe and Store will also be open, but they are only accepting credit or debit at this time.

Admission will be free for a limited time, courtesy of M&T Bank. You can read about the innumerable considerations that went into planning at the BPAC for a safe opening in the August issue of Spree.

What’s happening there?

The entire museum has been reinstalled with seven new exhibitions, some of which were in the planning stages prior to the shutdown. These include one by noted cartoonist Caitlin Cass, who has been engaged in an eighteen-month project about the history of women’s suffrage and women in the civil rights movement at BPAC. Chantal Calato will exhibit work relating to Love Canal. A sculpture by this multimedia artist—whose work is influenced by Niagara Falls’ complex history—was a standout in the recent 2020 Vision: Woman Artists in Western New York at the Castellani Museum. In the main gallery, there will be a group-curated show reflecting recent events, such as quarantines, the Black Lives Matter movement and related protests, as well as our current cultural and political moment.

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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