When Dalma Földesi MArch '20 and Jung In Seo MArch '20 first started taking ceramics classes at MIT’s Student Art Association (SAA), they found a fascinatingly protean substance. Clay could be liquid or solid, heavy and dense or feather-light. Before it hardens, clay registers even the faintest touch. Its forms are variable, encompassing the rawest hunk of earth to the most delicate porcelain. Soon, ceramics became not just another hobby but a material that posed critical new questions about their discipline.
In their new online exhibition, Misalignments, Földesi and Seo celebrate these mercurial qualities of clay. Using a hybrid manufacturing process merging traditional pottery techniques with robotic fabrication, the exhibition embraces the beauty of the imperfect. In one piece, industrial robotic arms slowly secrete layers of clay until the object threatens to topple over–a moment, as the artists say, of orchestrated instability. As Sarah Hirzel, Coordinator of the Wiesner Student Art Gallery, notes, “Dalma and Jung’s work requires sophistication in architecture and design, robotic fabrication and hand sculpting; I love that they have utilized all of these skills to create something new for the remote season of the Wiesner Student Art Gallery.”
Last fall, a grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT) allowed the duo to continue their experiments with clay beyond their thesis research by expanding their robotic apparatus, creating new objects, and designing an exhibition.
The goal of the CAMIT grants program is to deepen and enrich the MIT community’s engagement with the visual and performing arts–and to help foster the process of experimentation and discovery that is essential to the arts at MIT. “CAMIT’s members are dedicated arts advocates and volunteers. It is very meaningful to be able to support projects that help MIT students to advance innovative, cross-disciplinary problem solving in the arts,” said Hyun-A Park '83, MCP ’85, chair of the Council for the Arts at MIT.
"Dalma and Jung’s work exemplifies the spirit of creative inquiry at the intersection of hand and mind and navigates the curious complexities of merging modern technologies with ancient material,” adds Niels Cosman '05, chair of the Council’s Grants Committee.
Földesi and Seo share an interest in computational design, a specialty of MIT’s architecture department, and participated in a workshop last January in Shanghai to build a full-scale shell structure using robotic additive manufacturing techniques. After taking the ceramics classes, they decided to combine this expertise with their interest in clay, devising new hybrid ceramic fabrication processes using a robotic clay extrusion process. MIT, Seo said, is a playground for tinkerers. At one point, they were tinkering with machines so much that their thesis advisor worried they weren’t producing any architectural drawings.
Bringing together Földesi’s background in interaction design with Seo’s more traditional architectural training, their collaborative thesis became a way for them to synthesize their shared interest in exploring the line between the handmade and the machine-made, and ultimately to question many of architecture’s implicit assumptions about the nature of building materials. When modernism gained prominence as the dominant architectural style in the early 20th century, vernacular materials like clay or wood were often dismissed as primitive, Földesi and Seo explained. Unlike the concrete and steel used in modernist buildings, which could be molded to an extremely precise degree, clay introduces a much greater element of chance—in short, a very human messiness. In many ways, this modernist legacy still remains. “Buildings fall apart, all the twists and turns over time, because of weathering. But because our architectural consumption of that building is so narrow and predefined, it doesn’t tolerate that kind of change,” said Seo, “And clay kind of opposes that.”
The pair sees their works not as models for future buildings but artifacts that critique how architects commonly “approach materials as a given or an unending source that needs to be cut down or processed into some geometrical forms that we desire,” Seo said. Clay, in its endless malleability, is a material that challenges rational precision.
The ubiquity of digital fabrication techniques in architecture, enabling the creation of even more geometrically perfect forms, may seem to deliver the modernist dream of total control over the material. And yet, Seo said, while digital fabrication is often portrayed as fully automated, much of the process still involves a fair amount of human error and intervention. “We wanted to celebrate this merging,” he said, “There’s always an interplay between robotic or automated processes and the manual processes that go along with it.”
There’s always an interplay between robotic or automated processes and the manual processes that go along with it.
Földesi and Seo describe the work as an “open score,” in which they have defined the parameters while still leaving space for improvisation and chance. The form emerges from the process, rather than from an architectural diagram, or any predetermined idea on the part of the creators. “Part of that score is improvised by the robot, for example,” said Földesi. The resulting artifact is a collaboration between the architects, the robots, and the material itself.
This interplay between the virtual and material acquired an additional complexity once the pandemic hit. In March, Földesi and Seo were just beginning to install the exhibition when MIT’s campus abruptly closed. By August, when it became clear that the campus would not be reopening soon, they began to brainstorm how to translate the exhibition into a virtual format, and the 3D digital renderings they had first created to plan the exhibition suddenly became the show itself. For an exhibit at Boston’s Emerson Contemporary on view through December 11, 2020, they then found themselves translating the digital back into the physical.
Since earning their master’s degrees last spring, Földesi and Seo, are now working in the architectural field in New York City, while furthering their collaborative research at Pratt’s Consortium for Research in Robotics and as residents at the software company Autodesk. They continue to tinker while reimagining the ways we think about materials and form–and asking us to reconsider how we define perfection.
Learn more about the Council for the Arts at MIT, a group of alumni and friends with a strong commitment to the arts and serving the MIT community.