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PushMI PullYu

How do we make decisions? And what role does our social environment play in this process?

PushMi PullYu, 2021
Client: Schering Stiftung Gallery, Berlin
Creative Direction: Hyphen-Labs
Tech Direction:Kai Lab
Curation: Christina Landbrecht, Nele Heinevetter 
Collaborators: John Dylan-Haynes, Mary-Katherine Heinrich

Through its solo exhibition “PushMi PullYu,” the international art and design studio Hyphen-Labs transforms the exhibition space of the Schering Stiftung into a laboratory for decision-making. In the installation, robots swarm, make decisions, move within set borders, experience outside influences and have individual interactions. Their paths are based on arbitrary human decisions painting temporary canvases of collective thoughts on the walls.

The intervention “PushMi PullYu” is inspired by both swarm behavior observed in nature and their dialogue with the neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes, professor at the Berlin-based Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience. In 2008, Haynes’s experiments showed that relevant brain signals are present ten seconds before the making of a conscious decision. This research has provided a boost to proponents of determinism, the theory that we humans do not have free will, rather our decisions are constrained by the determinist nature of the world. In 2015, follow-up research by Haynes showed that these brain signals can be “overruled” by a conscious decision.

The exhibition navigates between the poles of free will and determinism, of individualism and the collective behavior. Using Haynes’s studies as a backdrop, Hyphen-Labs collaborated with swarm intelligence researcher Dr. Mary Katherine Heinrich and creative technologists Kai Labs to re-program familiar housebound robots for the purposes of exploring the parallels between these two opposing states of being. Visitors trigger the swarm’s algorithm by activating either a red or blue light, or both, which sends a message to the machines and alters their behaviour. These interventions allow us to constantly influence the scenario and question the complex relations of body and mind, individual and group, man and machine. Through “PushMi PullYu,” Hyphen-Labs invites us to take a contemporary look at the recurring question in science and philosophy: Do we have free will? How do we define free will? How much freedom do individuals have and how does it affect collective action?

In addition to these questions, the installation “PushMi PullYu” also addresses the challenges we increasingly face due to the spread of machine learning: Intelligent machines exploit the predictability of human decision-making behavior in unexpected ways and, moreover, are already learning to develop novel ways of behavior – for example, by interacting with other intelligent machines.