Interview with Jeffrey Warren as told to Tim Devin.
What’s a brief overview of what you do?
Most of my time is spent working on Public Lab, an open community and non-profit which I helped found, dedicated to developing inexpensive, Do-It-Yourself ways to investigate environmental concerns. I do everything from community organizing to designing papercraft science instruments, to running kite-mapping workshops, and it's very rewarding.
Because I'm lucky enough to be working on my passion project full time, I'm free in my remaining personal life to pursue projects that are silly, speculative, or simply more purely aesthetic in motivation. I've always been a maker/crafter/builder of things, and many personal projects are explorations of ideas in that space.
Are there some past projects you’d like to mention in more detail? (What's your proudest moment, etc.)
One project from the past year that I've been excited about is a kind of "Polaroid-style" camera built into a cardboard box, that sort of looks like an old twin lens reflex camera. When you press the trigger, it takes a somewhat grainy picture and prints it out the top on a roll of receipt paper. It's great for portraiture.
For Public Lab, I've been doing a lot of papercraft work, as that's one way we're able to make investigative environmental science kits that are super cheap -- our fold-up mini spectrometer is $10, and you can print and cut it out yourself for free. I especially love that it uses a piece of a DVD as a diffraction grating -- to split light up by color into a spectrum. It transforms everyday objects and materials into a device that can distinguish nanometer differences in the wavelength of light.
Another I've been very happy with is a pop-up paper sculpture based on a large installed kinetic sculpture I saw in Barcelona. My version reproduces it in miniature and includes a small wooden crank which causes a suspended grid of paper to undulate -- making waves like the surface of the ocean. It was a joy to build, and took a long time due to the many strings, pulleys, and orthodontic rubber bands used. Here’s a video: https://youtu.be/_5YyIxSdJlI
Is there anything new you’re working on, or an event that’s coming up?
I usually have a bunch of small projects going. One currently in progress is a weaving project where I'm trying to make a scarf, or series of scarfs, that reproduce the atomic emission spectrum of different elements. Since I work with spectral data at Public Lab, I'm always seeing beautiful spectra on our SpectralWorkbench.org website, and I just think they'd make really nice scarves. Helium and neon, for starters. This has happily required me to learn how looms work.
Another one I'm working on is a pixel-based online game, building on an earlier pixel editor called Pxlshp.com. This is a sort of dungeon fantasy adventure game, but in only 16x16 pixel resolution. No object may be larger than 1 pixel in size, so it ends up being kind of an abstract game to look at, but one where nonetheless you can see "rats" and "zombies" -- and scare them off with a "torch" -- all just different colored single pixels. You can play an early version at Pxlqst.com
Why do you do what you do? What’s something you get out of it?
For my Public Lab work, I believe that people need better means to document and understand environmental problems in their communities, and the ability to hold polluters accountable through evidence. And that one of the keys to that is affordability and accessibility, especially since many environmental problems disproportionally affect communities without a lot of resources or capacity.
More broadly, I just enjoy the process of building things, and find some joy in well-crafted paper, wood, ceramic, textile, or even digital objects. Many of my personal projects indulge my preferences in materials, colors, and mechanisms, as well as occasional minor obsessions in historical accuracy. Some of the projects I do are for causes or organizations I believe in, from a tote I designed for Public Lab to design work I've done for Parts & Crafts or Union United.
What got you involved in doing what you do? Is there someone or something that was important in getting you on your way?
For my work at Public Lab, and my interests in environmental issues, I credit both Natalie Jeremijenko, a technologist and artist who I worked for and with in college, and my co-founders at Public Lab, who have challenged me and helped shape my views on many parts of our work there.
For my interest in making things in general, I'm not sure, but I've been doing it from a very young age -- I remember adding sails to a canoe in high school, or putting a couch on wheels on an abandoned railroad line and mounting a mast on that, too. I think it runs in my family a bit -- my dad is a fantastic woodworker, and my great grandfather made all kinds of interesting things, including marionettes.
Any thoughts on the local Somerville, or Boston-area creative scene?
I love this community, and especially that there are so many others working away busily at all sorts of weird and interesting projects -- it makes me feel that I'm in good company. I especially like taking some of my projects to Parts & Crafts' Open Shop on Saturdays, and all the amazing folks who make up the Milk Row Creative Zone, all the way down Somerville Ave.
In addition, check out beautiful photo portrait sessions of Jeffrey by Jaclyn Tyler Poeschl | Photographer