I’m currently involved in two research projects: artistic research at Hogeschool Zuyd, and my PhD research at Maastricht University. See below for abstracts of both of them.

Living Well with Your Brain: valuing neuroscience in society

Ties van de Werff, Maastricht University, 2011 – 2016

Despite its complex scientific technicalities, in the past decade the brain has emerged in all kinds of societal and scholarly domains as a popular means for understanding human behavior. Key to the spread of neuroscience knowledge from the lab into society, is the concept of brain plasticity: the ability of the brain to change its functions or structure. The notion of brain plasticity ‘opens up’ the brain for all kinds of interventions (Abi-Rached & Rose, 2013) and invites actors to do something with it, invoking specific action programs, values, and other ideas of the good. Ranging from self-help manuals, management literature and brain games, interventions based on brain plasticity seem to serve as answer to the timely ethical question of how to lead the good life.

In my dissertation, I explore how the plastic brain precisely is made valuable for addressing these ethical concerns, and to what extent neurobiological interventions (based on brain plasticity) are able to challenge or destabilize existing norms, values and ideas of the good life. Combining theories and methods from Science and Technology Studies (STS), ethics of emerging technologies and the sociology of valuation, I analyze the normative usages of plasticity arguments in three practices of a brain-inspired good life: parenting teenage brains; working the mindful brain; and caring for ageing brains.

I show how plasticity arguments function in these practices as ‘therapeutic arguments’ (Nussbaum, 1994) – combatting social maladies by manipulating the inner world – which enables actors to enact, stabilize and challenge different (and sometimes conflicting) ideas of the good. I further show that these valuations of the plastic brain occur through recurring patterns of moral argumentation, which I dub ‘moral repertoires’. I argue that the explanatory power of neurobiological claims does not come from the promise of finally unraveling what it means to be human. Rather, it results from the versatile ways brain facts can be used as ‘ethics by other means’. This indicates that values and ideas of the good play a crucial role in the valorization of science to society, implying a co-evolution of techno-science and morality or techno-moral change (Swierstra & Rip, 2007).

Engaging Art as Ethics in the Making

Ties van de Werff, Zuyd University, 2016-2017

In the past decade, policymakers, (local) governments, educational institutes and industries in affluent countries have all started to embrace art and artists as a way to deal with societal and economic concerns. This has fostered the development of all kinds of hybrid forms of engaged art, transgressing disciplines and boundaries between art, society, science and technology. While the expectations about art are growing, so is the critique of instrumentalizing art for other purposes than art itself. Debates about the potential relevance and value of art for local communities or creative industries remain characterized by a dualistic opposition: the celebration of the (Romantic) ideal of autonomy of the artist versus a perceived necessary societal or economic relevance of art. The question, often unaddressed (as Elephant in the room) yet central to this debate, is: What is actually good engaged art?

Instead of firmly positioning myself in debates on these normative issues beforehand, I take an empirical and critical stance to this question. In my research, I study how actors in the field (artists, teachers, curators, policymakers, entrepreneurs, etc.) enact, anticipate and negotiate different valuations of (good) engaged art. I do this not by theorizing about the (ethical) value of aesthetics, but by turning to the art practices themselves. How can we understand what (engaged) artists do? How do they make their art valuable? And what gets counted as good engaged art, and by whom? Based on empirical observations of three cases of engaged art in contexts of a particular concern (bioart, social design, and artistic research), I elaborate on art as a form of ethics in the making: a practice in which the artist attunes and calibrates herself as a sensitive and intervening ethical agent.

Explicating how contemporary artists in practice juggle with and negotiate between different (and sometimes conflicting) expectations of what should constitute (good) engaged art, helps to better prepare young artists how to navigate and position themselves in a networked, experience-based society – without having to resort to or choose from predictable and unfruitful views of art as Romantic versus economic expression. Furthermore, in a society where continuous (technological) change is the imperative, and where ethical deliberation is no longer confined to academia, special committees, or religious fora (if it ever was), art has become an important channel for reflecting on what to do and how to live. The notion of art as ethical practice, as a form of encultured ethics, clarifies how artists can contribute to a better understanding of ethical life in our contemporary culture.