Last year the people of Pretoria took part in a guerilla biennale. #Cool Capital Biennale documents this event. Diane de Beer reports

It was Pretoria architect Pieter Mathews (Mathews and Associates Architects) who, after a visit to the Venice Biennale, decided Pretoria needed its own artistic intervention.

“These festivals elevate cities, express community values, transform the landscape, heighten awareness and question our assumption,” he writes in the foreword of #Cool Capital Biennale, a book that tells the story of the 2014 guerrilla biennale in Pretoria.

Describing this attempt as an uncurated DIY biennale, he explains that the capital city has an abundance of renowned artists, brilliant graphic designers and no shortage of celebrated architects, but that they wanted all the citizens involved to collectively rethink the city’s urban environment.

What do we like about our city? How can we, as citizens, make it better? These were the two most pertinent questions which kicked off the event.

Unlike a typical biennale’s process of submissions and approval, this was an open invitation. Anyone – group, institution or individual – could express their creativity and they did. But it is the follow-up, with more general involvement and an even further reach that will really shake this one up.

“South Africa’s constitution states that the country belongs to all who live in it. In this spirit, Cool Capital’s intention was to truly democratise creativity,” says the instigator.

He knows the impact of the biennale lies in its collective leverage. With no funding, people were expected to find innovative solutions. Limited budgets also propelled novel creative outcomes to the fore.

“Cool Capital became an opportunity and an excuse to show the world what the capital city’s creative community could do: Go out. Surprise. Ambush. Pop up.”

So what did the city do during this biennale? That is really what the book is about, capturing the length and breadth of the participation and pointing out the different people and projects on board.

Because it was a guerilla event, organising had to be almost non-existent, yet there. “We had to make everyone understand nobody was going to grant permission, provide funds, or allocate help to realise any single project,” notes Carla Taljaard, also an architect with Mathews and Associates Architects with a special interest in heritage and history in the capital city as well as the biennale organiser.

She believes the whole thing came off simply because it was kept guerilla, citizen-driven and DIY. “Our belief that the people of Pretoria was its biggest asset paid off,” she concludes.

Written by Johan Thom, Department of Visual Arts, University of Pretoria, a chapter dealing with art installations explains that these kinds of interventions in existing spaces or cultural contexts aim to critique, question or highlight specific aspects. He argues, too, that artistic interventions have, at their core, a radical acceptance of the context specificity with which they are created.

Case in point with the biennale was the statue of Paul Kruger on Church Square in the centre of the city.

Previously it was almost regarded as treason to do anything other than stare in admiration at this grand old man. Today, young South Africans view it as a remnant from a bygone era replete with bygone cultural and political values.

“In contemporary, democratic South Africa, we understand all too well that paradigms shift, dramatically shifting our sense of self and the world and that is what was at the heart of the biennale’s The Silver Lining.”

As with all historic statues in the country, this one also didn’t escape the recent debates about it being appropriate and relevant.

For the intervention, Kruger was covered with aluminium foil so it appeared as if the statue had been recast. The idea was to start a discussion on the changing relationship of the city with its monuments treating the statue as a symbol of the city’s identity, but altering it so it could be perceived with fresh eyes and hopefully, encourage a more provocative perspective on difficult issues – yet issues that speak about a city and its people.

Drenching the Voortrekker Monument in pink light, writing love messages to Pretoria in graffiti, but making it eco- friendly with moss paint to link the city to a green future were some of the projects undertaken.

Children’s swings placed in the open spaces at the Pretoria Art Museum and the Association of Arts questioned the safety of public spaces for children in the city and whether there were enough of these spaces.

Similarly, Water for Trees and People on their Knees was an installation that created awareness of the homeless who live especially in Pretoria parks. While water is a symbol of life, it is an everyday struggle for the homeless to access it.

All these issues were tackled in a contemporary, visual fashion, injecting a fresh point of view on topics that might have become tired or neglected.

Another interventionist space in the city was Hatfield, a suburb with a large student population, which is often plagued by crime.

Different artistic interventions like cartoon eye stickers placed on walls to alert people that they are being watched, identification of car guards so they are integrated and embraced by the community they serve and where they earn their living, rather than ignored, as well as a programme that used hidden messages which would unexpectedly appear to catch the attention of those passing by were some of the eye-catching interventions designed to capture the spirit of the biennale.

Schools were drafted in to assist, with 19 schools in and around Pretoria initiating interventions using the collective skills of the teachers, pupils and professional artists. Things like the Voortrekker Kappie were questioned to look at changing attitudes and contemporary childhoods, others enhanced the artistic potential of their school grounds.

It’s clear, when thumbing through this book that cohesion is wrought by people doing things en masse.

It benefits all living in a specific space, cultivating creativity and encouraging those who live and breathe art to share it much more widely. It’s something to be encouraged as it has no negatives. This is always the case when art is pushed centre stage.

Viva Cool Capital! And the great news is that this initiative can spread to any city, town or even province.