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Becoming Tarden — Prologue


Living in Amsterdam in the spring of 2004, I received a letter from a senior advisor to the Netherlands’ chief government architect. Enclosed was a job description, translated from Dutch. The Government Buildings Agency was hiring on behalf of the Algemene Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst, or the Dutch secret service. The Organization had doubled in size over recent years due to the new wave of global terrorism and was thus moving to a larger building. As a government building funded with public money, federal law required a percentage of the project’s total budget be used to commission a new onsite artwork. The Agency’s mission was to appoint someone whose work would support the mission of The Organization, as paraphrased below.

The Organization’s reluctance to commission an artwork was clear from the document enclosed, which excited me even more. It described its task as to protect the interests of the nation by researching groups and individuals, both domestic and international, which pose a threat to the democratic order of the state. Society, it wrote, expects The Organization to know what those threats include. At the same time, citizens require legal protection against techniques used by The Organization that invade the personal domain, such as audio and physical surveillance. The Organization acknowledged that just how far it is permitted to go in fulfilling its task without compromising the cornerstones of society—openness, democracy, and civil rights for all—is constantly in question. “Sometimes,” the letter concluded, “the information that is assembled cannot be made public. Where possible the organization tries to be open.”

Applications should include a resume, mission statement, and examples of relevant work.

In sending me the letter, the senior advisor had clearly recognized what I did: this job was perfect for me. It was the logical next step in my career, which had come to involve an experiential investigation of secrecy and government institutions—often by my infiltrating them. I sat down at my improvised desk in the canal house at which I was staying and prepared my application. I wrote it in a voice which the Government Buildings Agency and The Organization would identify with, or even think they might be able to exploit—a skill I had learned from experience.

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