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!
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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…
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Architect Thomas Grove
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Child play therapy researcher Claire Neven
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(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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(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
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Environmental activist and anti-plastics campaigner Katie Kedward with Tom Wheeler
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Adam Spratley, graphic designer for Narrating Plasticity

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‘Expansion’

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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’

 

 

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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?
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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?
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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. 

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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
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Placards explaining the thinking behind Amanda’s ceramics series Kill or Cure and ‘The Angel Inside’
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‘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.

 

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!”

 

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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]

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A plastic world?

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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”.

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(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).

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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.

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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.

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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.