Klaus Pichler’s newest book A Hoax A Prank an Internet Scam an act of Agricultural Bio-Terrorism is, in many ways, a continuation of the themes of The Petunia Carnage, a book I reviewed last year. Like that work, this new book continues Pichler’s dive into the unique niche intersection of biology and government.
This new book continues Pichler’s dive into the unique niche intersection of biology and government.
Like The Petunia Carnage, in A Hoax A Prank an Internet Scam an act of Agricultural Bio-Terrorism Pichler follows a bizarre story. In this case, everyday citizens in the USA randomly began receiving packages of mysterious seeds from China via the post. These were not products they had ordered, nor gifts from friends, they were not promotional and the packages were barely labelled. Instead, a confusing (and eventually worrying) trend began: anonymous and unmarked seed packets turning up on doorsteps across the country. Pichler’s book, then, responds to this story by photographing a range of seeds and plants, alongside posts from social media, letters from government and quotes from experts.
Before one even opens the book, A Hoax A Prank an Internet Scam an act of Agricultural Bio-Terrorism engages with the form of a book much more than The Petunia Carnage ever did. Wrapped in the ubiquitous and anonymous beige plastic of e-commerce, the packaging of the book mimics the packaging of the seeds featured in the book. The end papers and opening pages also have a plastic coating and mirror that feeling as well. These small touches are meaningful changes to Pichler’s book making practice – touches that I felt were the only thing missing from The Petunia Carnage – and they add a new dimension to the way the book operates – physically incorporating the experience a person would have had unwrapping a posted packet of seeds with that a reader has opening the package of the book. One has to tear open a plastic packet to even touch the book.
Through these images, Pichler highlights a simmering pot of online malcontent, conspiracy and knee-jerk overreaction.
The images in this book, though, are often repetitious and sometimes a little bit flat because of this. Primarily, the first 75% or so of the photographs are images of seeds and the early stages of germination. While Pichler only includes photographs that look sumptuous and rich, this does border, at least for me, on just a little too much repetition. As a consequence, it’s hard to discuss things like edit and sequence, as so many of the photographs operate more as a typology, than elements of the story being retold. Peppered throughout the sequence, though, are a variety of visual ephemera: screenshots of Facebook posts, official letters from the United States Department of Agriculture and even small quotes from a variety of expert sources. These images, more than the photographs to some extent, form a sort of forensic evidence while also providing context for a wider story.
Here, Pichler shows readers, the story is not so much about the confusing arrival of unwanted mail, but rather how even something as small and unnewsworthy as an unwanted pack of seeds cannot escape the social media whirlpool of post-truth, pro-Trump, bigoted anger. Through these images, Pichler highlights a simmering pot of online malcontent, conspiracy and knee-jerk overreaction. Juxtaposed with the muted, quiet and simple photographs of the seeds, Pichler weaves two narratives, calling attention to just how far fanned internet flames have become, and just how unremarkable these seeds are.
The final quarter of the book hits a very strong stride, showing images of the plants these seeds grow into. This change in the content of the photographs is refreshing, and Pichler explores a slightly different palette, one where the deep and dark greens are contrasted in blues and oranges, imbuing these photographs with both an eerie glow and a sense of fragility. I feel that this part of the book, photographically, is definitely the strongest – the small, somewhat struggling plants are beautifully shot and the variety provided brings even more life to this final chapter. The photographs position the reader to wonder if these seedlings are really capable of all the worry they have inspired.
The last image in the book is of a letter from the USDA. It turns out that the seed packets were a cheap way for Chinese companies to falsify positive reviews. In the face of people’s worries about bio-terrorism, attacks on US agriculture, diseases, COVID-inspired fears, what was actually lurking beneath it all was something less scary, but much more widespread – an erosion of what is true online. While social media algorithms amplify the most extreme fears, peddling a community’s most intense reaction back onto everyone, spreading like a virus, reality is much more banal: a company just wanted to seem better than it is. At the end of the day, and at the end of the book, Pichler makes clear that the most worrying thing is the fact that the internet companies behind the seeds and the outrage didn’t want to kill anyone, they just wanted to scam everyone.
Ultimately, I found this book a very interesting exploration of the ground Pichler is well-placed to explore. While the photographs were not quite as intense as previous bodies of work, the moral and social dimensions of the story holding this work together were more carefully exposed and, ultimately, more chilling. Pichler made noticeable changes to his book-making practice that paid off and while some of the pacing and repetition was not to my taste, I think that the topics and approach are vital in our current social climate. While people may agonise over a packet of rosemary seeds, those same people may not care as much about their outrage-driven attention economy. I am not sure this book does much to address those things (how could it?), but it does showcase that even a company mundanely puffing itself up is a ripe breeding ground for the worst types of anger and panic.