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…

Advertisements
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
Photo 06-02-2018, 17 34 00
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.
Photo 07-02-2018, 11 45 09
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.

 

Endoscopic Third Ventriculostomy, or How I met my own brain and my own plasticity

[Spoiler] This is a story about how a Tinder date ended in brain surgery.

In September 2015 I began my PhD in the French department at King’s College London, researching how contemporary French philosophy engages with current theoretical neuroscience.

Despite this interest in philosophical conceptions of the brain, I had never really thought about my own brain. I never thought I would ever get to see my own brain, or that I would ever come face to face with the questions of neural vulnerability and transformation that I was reading about in theoretical texts.

From Tinder to Neurology

On Thursday 10th December 2015, just months after starting my PhD, I was beaten up in a homophobic attack. I had been on a date with a guy at a pub in Holborn. His name was Shaun, and we had laughed and drunk too much and talked about whether animals drink the milk of other animals or not. Shaun had performed a song about this. At the end of the date, we had a snog outside the pub just next to The Lion King. A group of men had walked past, shouted abuse at us, and then punched me in the head. Hakuna matata.

Unconscious, I was taken St Thomas’ hospital, with my date bundled into the back of the ambulance with me. I remember being asked what year it was, how old I was, what my name was, and struggling to answer any of these questions.

At the hospital I had a CT scan and a doctor came to speak to me.

“So, the scan shows that you have some concussion and a bit of bleeding on the brain… that’s to be expected. But — and, err, nothing to panic about just yet — we found that you have a pre-existing brain tumour…”

My tumour, it seemed, had nothing to do with the attack, and was sandwiched right in between the third ventricle of my brain and the forth ventricle, meaning that fluid could not flow out of my brain normally and my brain was swelling up like an GMO melon. This is a condition called hydrocephalus, which means water-head.

Following a long week of extra tests, watching Loose Women in the day room, and wondering around in one of those hospital robes where your bare bottom shows at the back, I underwent brain surgery to relieve my water-head of all its excesses.

Endoscopic Third Ventriculostomy

I remember entering the surgical theatre, seeing all the instruments laid out for me like the implements of torture in the final scene in Braveheart, and the anaesthetist tapping the table as if to say “hop on, now, there’s a good boy!”

The operation was an Endoscopic Third Ventriculostomy. Here is a video of one on Youtube as seen from the camera at the end of the endoscope; the inside of the ventricles look like underwater caverns explored by a diver. Whilst the consultant hadn’t been too worried about my tumour itself – it looked “pretty friendly”, thank God, and he was happy to leave it where it was – the extra fluid did have to be redirected. The surgery was to make a small hole at the bottom of the third ventricle in my brain, allowing the fluid to escape another way. The operation was describable only in plumbing terms, it seemed. All about blockages, cisterns, squirts, and bypasses.

Benjamin Dalton and friends
The post-surgery visitation: morphine, nudity, and DVDs.
Benjamin Dalton post brain surgery
My mom lovingly reattaches my earrings after they had been brutally banished from the operating theatre.
brain
My brain, before and after surgery.

The operation was a success, and I woke up to find my extremely composed and endlessly handsome neurosurgeon by my bedside. He was happy.

Then they gave me an injection of morphine and I felt it race round my body’s contour – round my head, up my left arm, down my left leg, over to the other leg, and back up, like you might ice the outside of a gingerbread man at Christmas. Then I was wheeled back to the ward where my friends and family took photos of me with my bottom hanging out of my robes, and watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding on DVD.

Neuro-vulnerability and Plastic Stories

My own encounter with my brain taught me a lot about both neuro-vulnerability and neuro-resilience: the brain is at once impossibly fragile and impossibly hardy.

I had been extremely lucky in that what had happened to my brain – both before and after surgery – had not incurred any perceptible changes in my cognitive or motor function. Many of the patients on my ward, however, were suffering from brain injuries or pathologies that that radically changed their mental function, some unable to tell where they were, speak, or recognize family members.

Whilst plasticity refers to a resilience (the ability of the brain to transform and persist and survive), this very transformability is also its most intimate vulnerability: the neural self is always on the verge of transforming into something else, something unrecognisable, as the result of the most banal of material occurrences.

These people’s ability to put themselves into narrative – to communicate a cohesive, linear phenomenology of identity, trauma, and transformation – was, thus, radically hindered: an incapacity for narrative that had direct impact on their ability to negotiate agency with regards to decisions of care and treatment when met with a clinical team that only has the resources to engage with one type of (non-plastic) narrative.

In this project, “Narrating Plasticity”, the neuroscientists collaborated with Amanda to determine how much the conception of plasticity differed as it passed between the plastic arts and the plastic neurosciences; over months of workshops, making pots, looking down microscopes, talking, it emerged there are – and indeed must be – many forms of narrative necessary for communicating different forms of plastic change and transformation.

Imagine the ethical and clinical potentialities and innovations within hospital and therapeutic spaces and many others that might come from plastic narratives. It is my contention that in order to connect with our plastic bodies in plastic times – in order to offer these plastic bodies new forms of therapy, new forms of experience, new forms of community and help or mutual-aid – we must recognise all plastic forms and transformation as forms of life, precisely in innovating new forms with which to put plasticity into narrative.

—–

Plastic narratives are already all around us, often in the most unlikely places. For how my brain surgery got me into B movies, and how I came to find neuro-exploitation cinema therapeutic, see my article for The Still Point journal here.

Exploding glazes and the problem of destructive plasticity

“The exploding glazes are exciting,” Amanda tells me. “But they won’t do. We want our apoptosis controlled!”

 

20170821_143006

20170821_141048
Amanda’s exploding glaze Petri dishes…

What plasticity? Which plasticities?

Before we begin, what actually is
“plasticity”? Indeed, is there such a thing as a unified concept of plasticity, or are we always talking about various different “plasticities” in the plural?

[Go to official “What is plasticity?” blog page]

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 18.51.12

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 19.15.08

 

A plastic world?

Lego-bricks

The words “plastic” and “plasticity” come from the Greek plassein meaning “to mould”.

At its most fundamental, then, plasticity as a material characteristic names a certain malleability: plastic things can be moulded, plastic things take form.

Today, of course, the meanings and the forms of plasticity have proliferated, the concept of plasticity itself becoming plastic, mutating and taking different forms across various different contexts.

It might be more fitting to talk of plasticities in the plural; this project, Narrating Plasticity, seeks to open dialogues between these different plasticities, questioning the origins and futures of the concept(s).

We talk of the plastic arts – the three-dimensional creations of artists manipulating material into their desired forms.

In the neurosciences, and more and more in popular science knowledge, plasticity, or more precisely neuroplasticity, has come to name the ability of the brain to change and restructure its own synaptic form over the course of a lifetime, transforming to reflect the impact of personal experience or reorganise and regenerate following trauma or injury.

The world in which we live is also, of course, increasingly populated by plastic materiality and logics. Our furniture is plastic. Our toys are plastic. Our clothes are plastic. Our money is plastic. We are 3D printing our bridges. We are changing our bodies with plastic surgery. The mean girls of Mean Girls are “the Plastics”.

hardest-mean-girls-quiz-ever
(Left to right) Lacey Chabert, Rachel McAdams, Lindsay Lohan, and Amanda Seyfried star as “the Plastics” in Mean Girls (2004)

  

 

PLASTIC ART

 “Plastic arts” refers primarily to art forms that result from the manipulation of plastic materials into any given form. These art forms might include sculpture, pottery, ceramics, etc.

Less commonly, “plastic arts” can refer the visual arts more broadly (painting, photography, film, etc.) in order to distinguish these art forms from the written arts, such as poetry or music.

The question of the specificity of plastic art forms as distinct from written works has been a central debate in art theory and history.

Famously, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing argues in his work Laocoön: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766) that plastic art and poetry can capture the same narratives, events, or ideas, but in very different ways.

Lessing looks at two different artistic interpretations of the Greek mythological tale of the Trojan priest Laocoön being murdered by giant sea serpents alongside his sons as punishment for having angered the gods. Lessing compares Virgil’s account of Laocoön’s death in The Aeneid (70BC – 19BC) to the sculpture of the Laocoön (200 – 20BC, currently on display at the Vatican Museum).

Lessing argues that whilst the sculpture represents the narrative event in space, the poetry represents the narrative in time. He also argues that whilst the poetry is able to convey the true horror of the situation, the sculpture “[strives] to attain the greatest beauty under the given conditions of bodily pain.”

Modern art continues to celebrate plastic form in new and innovative ways, from the violent horrors of Hans Bellmer to Marcel Duchamp’s (in)famous work “Fountain” (1917).

bellmer_hans_211_1987_414011_displaysize
Hans Bellmer, “La Poupée” (1935-36)
Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain” (1917)

 The explosion of plastic materials, or simply “plastics”, as we know them today from the 1930s onwards – low cost, synthetic, moldable polymers – also of course massively influenced and continue to influence the plastic arts as a material capable of reproduction on an industrial scale.

  

PLASTIC NEUROSCIENCE

In neurobiology, plasticity or neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to adjust and transform throughout life, dynamically changing synaptic form in response to experience or injury.

Before the 1970s, it had typically been thought that the structures and connections of the adult brain remained fixed and static. However, since then studies in the mutability and adaptability of the human brain have proliferated.

Your-Pliable-Brain-4

In 1964, anatomist Marian Diamond published a study on the changes that occur in a rat’s brain in response to its environment. This is widely argued to be some of the first scientific evidence of neuroplasticity.

Since then, studies have shown how the brain can recover following strokes or other pathologies and injuries, “healthy” parts of the brain taking over from damaged parts, reconfiguring and redistributing cerebral tasks across new or transformed connections.

A study conducted on London taxi drivers showed the section of the brain associated with spatial memory in the hippocampus to be greatly more developed than controls.

It should be noted that even in the field of neuroscience, the term “neuroplasticity” has many different, and sometimes even antithetical, applications.

In their book Towards a Theory of Neuroplasticity (2001), Christopher Shaw and Jill McEachern argue:

“Given the central importance of neuroplasticity, an outsider would be forgiven for assuming that it was well defined and that a basic and universal framework served to direct current and future hypotheses and experimentation. Sadly, however, this is not the case. While many neuroscientists use the word neuroplasticity as an umbrella term it means different things to different researchers in different subfields …”

Does neuroplasticity refer only to cerebral “form” uniquely as configured by changes in synaptic connections, or can we take neuroplasticity more literally, referring to the “squidgy” quality of the brain, capable to take new forms when the skull changes shape, for instance, or when a foreign object or tumour appears in the brain? How do we measure neuroplasticity?: do we watch rates of new neurons being made – neurogenesis – or are there other measurements?

These are all questions we will be exploring in this project.

 

PLASTIC PHILOSOPHY 

The contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou is becoming known as one of the most important voices in current continental thought.

catherine-malabou-2015-2

Malabou’s central philosophical concern is plasticity, which she develops across her interdisciplinary interests in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience, although Malabou’s plasticity also enjoys detours through anthropology, art theory, literary criticism, gender and queer studies, and many other domains.

For Malabou, plasticity names the ability of something to give form and take form. Malabou argues that scientific discoveries, particularly in neuroscience, show that biology and thus life itself is plastic, and that we should take these discoveries as a cue to think about the mutability of many of the structures we previously assumed to be fixed.

Philosophy is now revealed be plastic, mutable and open to change. Science is plastic. Gender and sexuality are plastic. Economy is plastic. History is plastic.

Crucially, however, for Malabou plasticity does not equal an unlimited capacity for metamorphosis. Plasticity is not elasticity. Plasticity is not fluidity. Plasticity is not adaptability. Plasticity is not polymorphism.

For instances, Malabou criticizes certain neuroscientific conceptions of plasticity for confusing plasticity with endless adaptability.

For Malabou, the confusing plasticity with adaptability – the brain can heal after anything, can adapt to any task – shows neuroscience to have fallen prey to capitalist ideologies which attempt to use the brain as the metaphor for the perfect worker.

In relation to victims of cerebral trauma or injury, Malabou argues that neuroplasticity might also be conceived in destructive terms; a person might become irrevocably transfigured or changed following trauma, “destructive plasticity” having taken the place of “healthy plasticity”, creating new forms out of the annihilation of old ones.