Ghost in the Machineby Brendon Bosworth / 16.11.2009
In this day and age, the power of images is sacrosanct. Without a good brand and a steady stream of visuals that capture attention and inspire, you’re dead in the water. Anne Sophie Leens (aka SPOOKY) has an eye for the visuals. She re-imagines Cape Flats and Mzanzi hip hop through the viewfinder of a camera and then re-creates it on a computer screen. As creative director at independent hip hop label Pioneer Unit, she does everything from shooting and directing music videos to designing all the album covers and merchandise. Not to mention the long hours of post production. Kah-chang! Her stuff is always fresh and unique. And while Pioneer Unit are fast becoming one of the most credible and respected indie hip hop labels in South Africa, it’s Spooky’s work behind the lens and laptop, building the brand, that makes everyone sit up and take notice.
Just check the latest Ben Sharpa video for a taste of her skills.
Spooky takes a lot of inspiration from her adopted home of Cape Town. “It’s like living in a giant studio,” she says. The insulated, weather beaten fishing village under the mountain gives her an excuse to retreat, watch and get inspired by the mix of cultures, architecture and visual languages that make up the city; encompassing everything from the grittiness of Lower Main Road to the creative energies of the townships. Try find that range of experience in Belgium.
Where were you born?
I was born in Belgium, in a town called Verviers, which is pretty much on the right- hand side of the country: in between Holland at the top, Germany at the right, and Luxembourg and France below. I moved to the North of England to finish my Graphic Design degree, then started working in Bath, near Bristol. I worked as a Graphic Designer for about 3 years in a studio called Subliminal. We used to do graphics for Playstation and design album covers. The Creative Director was always pushing for the risky good ideas instead of playing it safe.
Why did you move to Africa?
After 6 years of grey skies and no summer, I really wanted to get to a warm country. I was looking at Brazil but I knew absolutely nobody there and I don’t speak the language. But I knew I wanted to travel and move somewhere warm and sunny.
In 2000 whilst reading a design magazine, I found an article on skim.com. Skim sold clothing and accessories, each displaying a unique number. You could email that number at skim.com to talk to the garment’s owner. At the bottom of the article there were associated links, one of which was the now defunct interactive agency type01. Type01 had a live chat application called Mu-Mu, where each of the employees was represented by a little square. I clicked on Damian Stephens (aka Dplanet) who introduced me to all the coolest designers in Cape Town. One of the designers / developers was Francois Naudé, who ran a design forum called alt.sense. It also contained a photo gallery (a precursor to Flickr) where you could upload photos and design, and comment on each other’s work. I started taking self-portraits and uploading them daily. Wherever I went I had a camera. At first I used a 35mm film camera, but buying film and developing at this rate was becoming way too expensive, so I bought my first digital camera, a Canon Ixus. I also created my first photographic website, which contained a year of self-portraits.
After one year of contributing to alt.sense and meeting loads of Cape designers over the Internet, I flew down to finally meet everybody. I spent 2 weeks in the sun, took part in an alternative design festival called NMUF, took loads of photos, got a job offer and went back home to sort out my paperwork and pack up my life. I flew back to Cape Town 6 months later.
How does Cape Town influence/inspire your work?
Being part of, and shaping, South African hip hop culture is very inspiring. Working with amazingly talented emcees and producers who are proud of their roots, their language and being South African.
The spirit of independence and self-reliance that is evident in some communities here also inspires me. In Belgium citizens get a lot of help from the government: grants to study, monthly financial help if you have a large family, benefits if you are unemployed, medical care etc. Living in South Africa was an eye opener when you’re used to a European system. There are so many amazing people doing the most with very little, caring for others and living in hard conditions, yet remaining generous and warm.
How did you end up brand building in the SA hip-hop scene?
I worked as a new media designer when I arrived in Cape Town. Illustration and animation projects in Flash lead to animated cinema commercials and motion design. I collaborated with a post-production studio called Lodestar who first mentored me, then employed me. Whilst at Lodestar, I would join Dplanet and Trusenz at the recording studio. Recording sessions are always a bit mythical and you feel privileged being in the studio when an amazing track is recorded.
Dplanet and Tru were working on ‘Nomadsland’, Tru’s first album. I’d turn up, watch, listen and take lots of photos. One evening at the studio, I just decided that I wanted to make a music video for ‘Go Against Us’, one of Trusenz’s tracks. Working at Lodestar and getting motion design experience gave me the confidence that even though I’d never done anything like this before, I could do it.
It took me nearly 3 years to complete the project!
By the end of the music video, Dplanet was working on an album called, ‘Planetary Assault’, featuring a variety of Cape Town emcees. I started going to hip hop shows to watch these emcees perform, documenting the scene and getting to know everybody. Dplanet formalised his involvement with the South African hip hop scene and formed Pioneer Unit.
As well as being a partner of Pioneer Unit, I am also the ‘official’ photographer and designer, shooting and designing album covers, music videos and merchandise. I’m also working on a live show with Ben Sharpa and Siya on vocals, Dplanet on production, Raiko on the cuts and myself VJing. The show will be ready in 2010 and we will be touring it worldwide.
Hip hop is giving me a platform to be an artist, instead of just a commercial graphic designer. I get to shoot, design and create brands for artists who are putting out ground breaking material. It doesn’t get better than this!
Do you have a personal dress style?
I’m building a wardrobe of beautiful designer pieces and accessories, like a skirt / dress from Black Coffee, a sportswear top from a young designer in Brazil, a Blue Swallow necklace from a CPT jewelry designer… I mix these with sportswear items like leggings or tight trousers, t-shirts or shirt dresses, hoodies, scarf and tops with weird structure or details, yet look unassumingly simple. Sportswear with a hint of emo? Black, red, purple, green and grey with a dash of fluorescent pink are my colours.
Apart from the scene you are involved in, which musicians/ designers/ photographers float your boat?
Music: LARK, Amon Tobin, Sigur Ros, Nine Inch Nails, The Robert Glasper Experiment, Massive Attack, Mavado, Capleton, African Storms, Milanese, MOP – Monster, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx – Raekwon, Welcome to Heartbreak – Kanye West, Make Her Say – Kid Cudi feat. Kanye West & Common, Quiet Dog – Mos Def, Death of Autotune (remix) – jay Z, Shook Ones part 2 – Mobb Deep, Boy in da corner – Dizzee Rascal, Paper Planes – MIA
Designers: Peter Saville, Massimo Vignelli, Joe Fino, Jaime Hayon, Droog, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Peter Bilak, Ubermorgen, Tom Roope
Photographers: Petrovsky & Ramone, Lyall Coburn, Yosigo and Max Mogale
What are the every day challenges you have to deal with?
Photography is one of the things I do so the challenge is to find the balance between photography, design, motion design, admin, project management and looking after artists.
Find out more about Spooky and the other Nike IAM1 Revolutionaries here.