The Project

This project aims to open dialogues between the neurosciences and the plastic arts surrounding conceptions of “plasticity”.

We begin with the idea that contemporary conceptions of neuroplasticity – the mutability of the human brain – borrow their thinking of plasticity from sculpture and the plastic arts; this project aims to explore the artistic, clinical, and philosophical cross-fertilizations that might result from a reconnection of current neuroscience with its artistic and sculptural roots.

In order to catalyse these dialogues, this project will unite a plastic artist or potter and a neuroscientist over the course of four workshops. Two of these workshops will be help in the artist’s studio, and two will be held in the neuroscientist’s “terrain” of choice, be this a laboratory, a neuro-imaging facility, or other. The project will culminate in an exhibition showcasing the art work produced in the encounter, as well as a panel discussion opening dialogues between the neurosciences, philosophy, and the plastic arts. Further, the project will seek to question how these cross-fertilizations might have an impact on clinical practice.

Reuniting the two estranged plasticities of neuroscience and the arts, this project has two main parts governed by two main questions. Firstly: what is different and what is the same between the plasticity of a plastic art work and the plasticity of the brain? Secondly: what kinds of narratives does plasticity produce in art, and how might these narratives inform ways of thinking of about how to narrativize neural subjectivity, particularly in clinical scenarios where a patient has experienced some form of cerebral trauma and has to articulate the changes that have happened to them to a diverse team of clinicians.

My own PhD research explores plasticity from a philosophical and cultural perspective, focusing on the work of contemporary philosopher Catherine Malabou and the impact of her own thinking of plasticity across contemporary French thought, literature and film. Malabou’s interdisciplinary work spans philosophy, psychoanalysis and neuroscience; in relation to the brain, she argues that brain damage and neuropathology should not be seen as interruptions in the healthy life of plasticity, but indeed plastic forms and creations in themselves. The changes in personality in a patient following cerebral trauma, for instance, is for Malabou a legitimate form of plastic creation, or “destructive plasticity”. My own role in this project will be to bring Malabou’s philosophical thinking of plasticity to the workshops, and test how this might be applied in practical contexts, both artistic and clinical.

In particular, I am interested in the way both artistic and neurological plasticity produce narratives. The narration of the experiences of survivors of cerebral trauma or people living with neuropathology can pose problems to clinical practice. Cerebral trauma might have enacted a split in a person’s life, in which someone’s post-traumatic identity is suddenly unrecognizable from their previous self, or vast recesses of a previous life have been disfigured, forgotten, or lost; further, a patient will often work with a diverse team of clinicians, each of which will have access to only a small part of this patient’s “story”, which will often conflict with the “story” conveyed to other members of the team. In some cases, a family will try to tell the story of a patient who cannot themselves communicate. Post-traumatic stories, therefore, are fragmented, non-linear, and metamorphic. This project’s engagement between the neurosciences and the plastic arts will explore the possibility that the consideration of pathology itself as a formal creation, as plastic sculpture, might uncover creative and therapeutic materials for thinking about how post-traumatic identity might be communicated and put into (plastic) narrative.

This project is funded by the Collaborate Scheme for Early Career Researchers run by the King’s College London Cultural Institute.