My research interests currently cluster around ethics of engagement practices, in the arts and in the sciences. I am also interested in developing engagement as a research method. I practice research at the Research Centre for Arts, Autonomy, and the Public Sphere (Zuyd University of Applied Sciences). In the past, I worked as a postdoc and PhD at Maastricht University, see bee below for abstracts of all of these projects.


Engaging Art as Ethics in the Making

Ties van de Werff, Zuyd University, 2018-onwards

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.


Artful Participation

Ties van de Werff, Maastricht University, 2018 – 2021

In the 21st century, symphonic music institutions face challenges that endanger their traditional ways of operating. Although symphonic music is widely accessible, it has lost its once position as the leading music culture. Whereas symphonic music was a vital element in the cultural landscape until the 1960s, it has become a museum art form since. In this project, the world of the symphony orchestra is studied as an exemplary case in scientific and artistic research on cultural reproduction in the 21st century.

Innovation of the symphonic music practice is not possible without improving the quality of audience participation in this practice. We explore innovation of symphonic music practices, in particularly new and artistically meaningful ways of participation of audiences in the biographies/trajectories of musical works. In my post-doc project, I am especially interested in new ways to articulate and discuss the not-given, emerging value of symphonic music in our contemporary society. How to meaningfully perform relevance and value, based on a participatory orchestral practice?

The participation of audiences in the biography/trajectory of a musical work in the current dominant symphonic practice is organized and performed according to three ideal-typical roles: that of the consumer, the listener and the amateur. Based on ethnographic experimentation and intervention at the South Netherlands Philharmonic, we aim to experiment with new participative roles of the citizen, the maker, and the expert, thus actively involving audiences in programming, making and assessing symphonic music.

Artful Participation is a collaboration between Maastricht University (Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences), Zuyd University of Applied Sciences (Research Centre for Arts, Autonomy & the Public Sphere), and the South Netherlands Philharmonic, and the recently launched Maastricht Centre for the Innovation of Classical Music (MCICM).


Practicing the Plastic Brain: popular neuroscience and the good life

Ties van de Werff, Maastricht University, 2011 – 2017

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 behaviour. Key to the rapid spread of neuroscience knowledge from the lab to society is the concept of brain plasticity: the ability of the brain to change its functions and/or structure due to development, experiences, or injury. The notion of brain plasticity ‘opens up’ the brain for all kinds of interventions and invites actors to do something with it. The idea of a plastic, changing brain allows neuroscientists and neuro-advocates to propose all kinds of prescriptions of what to do and how to flourish – in short, it allows them to engage in ethics.

In my dissertation, I explore how the concept of brain plasticity is normatively used in societal practices of self-fashioning and flourishing. Combining theories and methods from Science and Technology Studies (STS), pragmatist ethics, and the sociology of valuation, I empirically analyse the journey of valuations and normativities of three manifestations of a plastic brain that together constitute doing and being good across the lifespan: teenage brains in the context of parenting; the stressed-out adult brain in the context of work; and the ageing brain in the context of self-care. By explicating the deliberate efforts of neuro-advocates in making brain claims valuable for specific audiences and for specific ends, I demonstrate for what sorts of problems, prescriptions, and ideals the plastic brain is mobilized in these cases of a brain-inspired good life, and whether this results in moral changes in what it means to be a good parent, a good employee, or to age well.