Plasticity and Ecological Crisis

Environmental activist and #GreenFinance advocate Katie Kedward wrote a blogpost responding to the Narrating Plasticity exhibition. Here, she shows how the concept of plasticity poses important questions in relation to how we understand ecological crisis and the forms of intervention that are available to us. People often ask what plasticity has to do with plastic as a material – Katie’s post also offers fascinating answers to this!

“We have to remember that we can change because we will soon have to change whether we want to or not. The social brain, just like the rest of the planet in which it is embedded, is beginning to suffer from the biggest ecological trauma in civilised memory. Mitigating its potential impact will require a remodelling of how society currently functions. Leaving it too late will see us forced to react to the consequences, transfiguring humanity as we’ve ever known it.

The narratives we chose to navigate such transformations, as the Narrating Plasticity exhibition so poignantly demonstrated, are crucial to better understanding ourselves. Not only as biological beings and reflective individuals, but as a society too. It is my view that the stories Western societies currently employ to narrate environmental concerns are faulty and ineffective…”

Read the rest of Katie Kedward’s article here:

Katie Kedward, Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity
Plasticity, in general terms, is the quality of being easily malleable but able to hold a form once moulded, thus differentiating it from elasticity or fluidity. The material of plastic, my pet hate and current environmental scourge, gets its name from this very ability to be moulded into infinite different forms. Similarly pottery, ceramics and sculpture are known as the plastic arts.

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Narrating Plasticity Exhibition moves to the Inigo Rooms…

Following the exhibition at the King’s College London Anatomy Museum 2-3rd February, the Narrating Plasticity exhibition moved to the Inigo Rooms for another week of public display…

Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity, Amanda Doidge
After the vast space of the Anatomy Museum, it was interesting seeing how the exhibition adapted to the very different space of the King’s College London Inigo Rooms. The exhibition itself had to become plastic, and find new forms and structures with which to tell its story…
Benjamin Dalton, Amanda Doidge, Narrating Plasticity, Inigo Rooms, King's College London
The Inigo Rooms at the King’s College London Cultural Institute served as an apt dark crypt for Amanda Doidge’s disturbing mutating cups
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The scientists’ own plastic creations was displayed alongside images of their trips to the ceramics workshop…
Benjamin Dalton, Amanda Doidge, Narrating Plasticity
Thanks so much to everyone who left their comments and contact details in the comments book. We had reactions from artists, scientists, surgeons, environmental activists, therapists…. We are excited to continue the conversation with you all, and see where the Narrating Plasticity project leads in the future…
Isy Lacombe, Narrating Plasticity
Theatre designer Isabelle Lacombe visits the exhibition whilst visiting London from Canada…
Isabelle Lacombe, Narrating Plasticity
Isabelle has been a close friend of mine for years, but we are usually separated by the Atlantic Ocean. It was so special to be able to take her around the Narrating Plasticity exhibition in person, and hear her reactions to it. Isabelle is a theatre designer and prop maker, so it was fascinating to hear about what plasticity and plastic creation means to her on both a conceptual and practical level.
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Professor Patrick French, who supervises my PhD thesis on plasticity in contemporary French thought and culture, comes to visit the exhibition…
Catherine Malabou, Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity
The Narrating Plasticity project film was displayed in the Inigo Rooms cinema… here is professor Catherine Malabou lecturing about the neuroplastic brain and the epigenetic human. Malabou’s work on plasticity has influenced the project throughout, with Amanda Doidge and the neuroscientists reading key texts of hers. Malabou’s work is also largely the subject of my PhD thesis: “The Coming of Plasticity: Transforming Change in Contemporary French Thought, Literature and Film”
Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity
Because I clearly just couldn’t help myself…
Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity
And here I am with my own brain. These two scans were taken before and after my endoscopic third ventriculostomy in December 2015. The brain on the left hand side exhibits hydrocephalus, whereas the post-operative brain’s ventricular system looks thankfully a lot healthier! This photo was taken the day of my annual brain scan and check up, and my surgeon Mr Bassel Zebian called later in the day to tell me he had been engaging with the Narrating Plasticity project… 
Dr Anna Kolliakou, Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity, Culture at King's
Dr Anna Kolliakou works at the Cultural Institute and the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience at King’s College London. As Knowledge Exchange Associate, Anna has been the project advisor for Narrating Plasticity from the very beginning. I absolutely could not have done this without her imagination, enthusiasm, support (both practical and emotional), and her brute dynamism when it comes to dealing with emails. Anna, thank you so much.


Narrating Plasticity – The Exhibition!

Over Friday 2nd and Saturday 3rd February, we welcomed over 300 visitors to the Narrating Plasticity exhibition at King’s College London!

On Friday, visitors attended the exhibition for a drinks reception, a premier of the project film , and a Q&A with project coordinator Benjamin Dalton and collaborators Amanda Doidge and Dr Sandrine Thuret’s team of neuroplasticity researchers from the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute.

Visitors represented a diverse range of backgrounds, from philosophy, French studies, the arts, medicine, education, politics, and many other areas. This lead to such fertile discussion across boundaries, with a huge range of different reactions to the project and ideas for future collaboration!

Do not hesitate to get in touch with coordinator Benjamin Dalton if you have any reactions or photographs to share, or if you have ideas for how Narrating Plasticity could develop further into the future!

Narrating Plasticity exhibition, Benjamin Dalton
Gathering around for the Q&A with ceramicist Amanda Doidge, project leader Benjamin Dalton, and Alish Palmos, Curie Kim, Chiara De Lucia, Demelza Smeeth and Andrea Du Preez of Dr Sandrine Thuret’s team from the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute following the premier of the project film! Questions from the audience were diverse and challenging, including questions about the future of arts and science collaboration, how neuroplasticity might be used and understood in education, and the ethics of neuro diversity!
Narrating Plasticity, Benjamin Dalton
Visitors watch the Narrating Plasticity project film for the first time before the Q&A!
Narrating Plasticity Benjamin Dalton and Amanda Doidge
Collaborator and ceramicist Amanda Doidge with project coordinator Benjamin Dalton welcoming everyone to the exhibition
Narrating Plasticity, Benjamin Dalton and Amanda Doidge
Mid Q&A (left to right) ceramicist and collaborator Amanda Doidge, project coordinator Benjamin Dalton, and Alish Palmos, Curie Kim, Chiara De Lucia and Andrea Du Preez of Dr Sandrine Thuret’s neuroplasticity research team from the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute


Narrating plasticity, Benjamin Dalton
The space of the King’s College Anatomy Museum allowed for fertile discussion between people from a range of different disciplines and interests…
Narrating Plasticity, Benjamin Dalton
The exhibition told the story of the project in various stages, with a project diary, ceramic work by the scientists, moving image installations, a book for visitors to record their own reactions, and Amanda Doidge’s incredible ceramic reactions to the project…
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Molecular biologist Charlotte Mykura joins the discussion…
Narrating Plasticity exhibition
Architect Thomas Grove
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Child play therapy researcher Claire Neven
Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity
(left to right) Dorianne Zerka, project coordinator Benjamin Dalton, Aida Baghernejad and Isabelle Blomfield, who appears in the Narrating Plasticity project film
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Social historian and Economist writer Susannah Savage

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Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity

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Martijn Buijs (left) with Knowledge Exchange Associate Adina Stroia from the Cultural Institute at King’s

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Narrating Plasticity Benjamin Dalton Jennifer Dhingra Isabelle Blomfield
(left to right) Isabelle Blomfield, Christina Johnson, Jennifer Dhingra, Benjamin Dalton and Erik Pazos
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NHS healthcare professional Jacob Etheridge
Benjamin Daltonm, Jennifer Dhingra, Narrating Plasticity
Jennifer Dhingra, medic and advocate for sexual health education, who gives an interview on the plasticity of sex and gender identity in the Narrating Plasticity project film
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Kate Foster, 19th Century French literature researcher at King’s College London
Katie Kedward Narrating Plasticity
Environmental activist and anti-plastics campaigner Katie Kedward with Tom Wheeler
Narrating Plasticity Benjamin Dalton Adam Spratley
Adam Spratley, graphic designer for Narrating Plasticity

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Narrating Plasticity
Ceramicist Amanda Doidge and project leader Benjamin Dalton

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Visions in red
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Researcher in political theory Artin Amjady

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The Narrating Plasticity press wall, with posters designed by the project’s graphic designer Adam Spratley

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Neuroscience researcher Aran Batth
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Financial advisor William Rees studies one of the more peculiar exhibits
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Project leader Benjamin Dalton with artist Ailsa Chaff (left) and television presenter, producer and writer Sannah Salameh (right)
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Researcher in Spanish and Latin American studies Vincent Nadeau

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Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity
‘Be your own muse’



Narrating Plasticity The Movie!

We are so excited to share the Narrating Plasticity project film with you!

We made a film about the Narrating Plasticity project with filmmaker Sam Plommer and which premiered at the Narrating Plasticity exhibition launch at the King’s College London anatomy museum on 2nd February 2018!

So many thanks to everyone involved, and hope you enjoy it! Feel free to get in touch with your reactions and comments! 

Project Diary: The Artist in the Neuroscience Lab

The day that ceramicist Amanda Doidge and philosophy researcher Benjamin Dalton stepped foot in the laboratory of the Maurice Wohl Neuroscience Institute

Many conversations were had when Amanda and I spent the afternoon with Dr Sandrine’s team of neuroplasticity researchers at the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute. Questions ranged from the scientific to the personal, from the artistic to the political. We looked down microscopes, studied images of neurogenesis, observed stem cell cultures, and talked ceramics.

Questions included:

How do scientists measure plasticity?

What does the concept of “form” mean to science?

Why does life have to take “form”? Is life possible without “form”?

Does (neuro)plasticity only ever describe healthy, helpful processes of evolution and development, or can “bad”, pathological processes also be described as “plastic”?

Amanda Doidge Narrating Plasticity Benjamin Dalton
Ceramicist Amanda Doidge is shown around the lab at the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute by neuroplasticity researchers Demelza Streeth, Curie Kim, Andrea Du Perez and Chiara De Lucia
Amanda Doidge Narrating Plasticity, Benjamin Dalton
Amanda looking at stem cells through a microscope. Amanda was interested in what forms were produced by the stem cells, and we had many conversations with the scientists about what “form” means from a scientific perspective. In terms of the brain, synaptic “form” is plastic because synapses can rewire and create different networks: so what is the different between the network and the form? Can a network also be a form?
Narrating Plasticity, Amanda Doidge, Benjamin Dalton
Neurogenesis in action: what forms are produced by neuronetworks? Amanda was also fascinated but the colours used by the scientists to differentiate between different types of cells at different stages in their life cycles…
Amanda Doidge, Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity
Amanda and I talked a lot to the neuroscientists about the lifecycles of a cell, and how different cells come together in the brain to make forms. One question that kept coming up was: if the scientists are measuring neuroplasticity in terms of the rate of neurogenesis – how many new neurons are being produced at anyone time – how does this fit in with the bigger thinking of plasticity? How does a researcher go from the zoomed-in picture of neurogenesis to thinking about the overall plasticity of the brain on a much larger scale?
What is neural form? Neuroscientists talk about plasticity in terms of neurogenesis, and the changing of connections and networks in the brain. How can we think of forms and networks at the same time?
Narrating Plasticity, Benjamin Dalton, Amanda Doidge
The scientists always seemed taken back by how beautiful we found the images of the nascent neurons. Amanda was particularly interested by how the dying cells were colour-coded differently from the living cells, asking exactly what the difference was between these two types of cell and how the dying cells contributed to ongoing “healthy” processes of neuroplasticity. We learned that apoptosis is the process by which cells die in a health and “planned” manner, to make way for new cells or to sculpt forms, “pruning” away unwanted material the way a gardener might prune a bush. Necrosis, on the other hand, is when cells die chaotically and in an unplanned manner, which can cause a lot of problems. It is a very fine balance between the two processes. 
Benjamin Dalton, Amanda Doidge, and the neuroplasticity team Narrating Plasticity
Squadgoals. (From let to right) Amanda Doidge, Curie Kim, Chiara De Lucia, Andrea Du Preez, Demelza Streeth and Benjamin Dalton

Project Diary: Meeting Amanda for the First Time

Cups, Trauma, and Heraclitus: Recalling my very first visit to meet the ceramicist Amanda Doidge at her workshop in Walthamstow

I first emailed the ceramicist Amanda Doidge to see if she would be interested in collaborating on the Narrating Plasticity project on a beautiful summer’s day in 2016. I had been fascinated by her dark, destructive ceramics and her interest in arts and science collaboration.  I clicked send and went back out into my garden in Wolverhampton to listen to Girls Aloud in the sun, not expecting to be contacted for a week or two.

Just ten minutes later Amanda called, asking if I would like to visit her in her studio in Walthamstow to discuss the project. I was very excited.

Two weeks later and I was on the tube to Walthamstow Central. Amanda showed me straight to her studio where her art work was being displayed as part of the E17 Art Trail. 

Narrating Plasticity Amanda Doidge Benjamin Dalton
Amanda’s workshop was set up displaying her work from the E17 Art Trail, where artists from all over Walthamstow open their studios to the general public. This piece is her series entitled: Kill or Cure
Amanda Doidge Narrating Plasticity
Placards explaining the thinking behind Amanda’s ceramics series Kill or Cure and ‘The Angel Inside’
Amanda Doidge Narrating Plasticity
‘The Angel Inside’
Amanda Doidge Narrating Plasticity
Single cup from the series ‘The Angel Inside’

Amanda told me that she was interested in series because she wanted to bring her ceramics to life somehow. Series of cups told a story. Amanda told me she liked how a series could either be a multitude of different cups, or display the same cup at different moments in its transformation.

To put the ceramics in series introduces the element of time into the ceramics.

In Kill or Cure, the cup appears to deform over a period of time, falling back under the weight of its handle. Each cup had been fired with an increasing amount of lithium in it, with the higher doses causing higher levels of deformation.

Amanda and I discussed what it meant to take one cup out of the series and look at it in isolation: it doesn’t even look like a cup, you are seeing it out of context, you do not know what has happened to it to produce that form.

In this way, seeing a cup in isolation is like meeting someone for the first time, be that on the street, or in a clinical setting when a doctor is trying to determine the history of a patient, or the development of a problem: you do not know what has preceded that form, or where that form will go next.

Narrating Plasticity Amanda Doidge Benjamin Dalton
Amanda arranging and rearranging the ‘The Angel Inside’ series in her studio.
Narrating Plasticity Amanda Doidge
Some of the many, many moulds used to create Amanda’s series… like the cups themselves, these moulds had to deform over time, straying further and further away from the form of the “traditional” cup with every new casting.


Narrating Plasticity The Movie: Behind the Scenes

Benjamin Dalton Ben Dalton Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute
I try out a spot of teat-pipetting in the laboratory at the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute
Benjamin Dalton Ben Dalton Anna Kolliakou
Talking to Dr Anna Kolliakou of the King’s College London Cultural Institute and Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience who has been advisor on the Narrating Plasticity project!
Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute Benjamin Dalton Sam Plommer Curie Kim Demelza
The dream team <3. Filmmaker Sam Plommer and I with Dr Sandrine Thuret’s neuroplasticity research team at the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute. Left to right: Alish Palmos, Chiara De Lucia, Sam Plommer, Benjamin Dalton, Demelza Smeeth, Curie Kim, and Andrea Du Preez
Benjamin Dalton Ben Dalton Dr Sandrine Thuret
Benjamin Dalton in conversation with Dr Sandrine Thuret at the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute
Filmmaker Sam Plommer editing some interview footage on the go… 
Sam Plommer Narrating Plasticity
Filmmaker Sam Plommer sets up the lighting for a morning of interviews in Professor Patrick ffrench’s office at the King’s College London French department
Benjamin Dalton Ben Dalton and Sam Plommer
The first interview of the morning with Benjamin Dalton and Sam Plommer
Sam Plommer Maurice Wohl laboratory
Filmmaker Sam Plommer setting up the shot with Dr Sandrine Thuret’s team of neuroplasticity researchers in the laboratory at the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute!
Benjamin Dalton
“Ready for my close-up, Mr Demille…”
William Martin Sam Plommer Benjamin Dalton
Interviewing potter and ceramicist William Martin at his studio in the Bussey Building, Peckham. Talking about queer plasticity, masculinity, mental health and ceramics.

How can a narrative be “plastic”?

What is a narrative? What kind of stories can be put into narrative? What kinds of narratives do plastic things create – a sculpture, a frieze, or the plastic brain – when they are no longer bound to linear time?

Following my brain surgery and my week long stay in the King’s College Hospital neurology ward, I began to wonder how people transformed following brain injury or surgery might be able to narrate and communicate their transformations to clinical teams and loved ones.

As we discussed previously, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to transform and change form throughout its lifetime, modulating neural subjectivity in response to life events and traumas; however, as the philosopher Catherine Malabou argues, plasticity is not a merely positive capacity for adaptation but also a dark creativity in which the brain can take the plastic form of a trauma it encounters, thus rendering someone unrecogniseable.

If (neuro-)plastic transformations had occurred in these people’s brains and lives, and these plastic changes defied the usual chronologies or logics of normative narrative structures, then their narratives would also have to be plastic.

What is a plastic narrative?

For inspiration as to what a “plastic narrative” might be, I turn again to the philosopher Catherine Malabou’s work Ontology of the Accident (2009).

Ontology of the Accident, Narrating Plasticity
Catherine Malabou’s “Ontology of the Accident” (2009)

In this book, Malabou argues that we must not only narrate “good” or “positive” plasticity, but indeed “destructive plasticity”. In other words, instances of neural trauma or pathology should not be seen as glitches or interruptions in “healthy” plasticity, but as valid plastic creations in their own right. Indeed, Malabou seems to argue, the powerful negativity of destructive plasticity seems to be central to the logic of all plastic creation and formation. A blown apart sculpture is still a sculpture, and a traumatised brain is still a brain.

Malabou suggests that, until now, cultural production and neuroscientific endeavour alike have been preoccupied with “good” plasticity, and therefore do not yet seem to have tools or forms necessary for communicating destructive plasticity.

Metamorphoses in literature, for instance, predominantly portrays transformation as a positive and helpful occurrence. Malabou reads Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a series of transformations which help the subject who is transforming. Daphne, for instance, turns into a tree in order to outrun Phoebus, and remains very much Daphne despite having taken the form of a tree. Likewise, in Kafka’s famous Die Verwandlung in which the protagonist Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a beetle, Gregor is still able to think and feel like Gregor despite his bodily metamorphosis. For this reason, Malabou argues, these are not true plastic narratives as they are unable to articulate the truly destructive potentiality of plastic transformation.

A plastic narrative, then, needs to be able to communicate transformation whilst retaining the radically of the temporal and formal disruptions and destructions at their core.