It has been a long time since we have issued an update on the Merz Barn. Like the rest of the country we have been hoping for a let-up in the Covid-19 pandemic, or the arrival of a viable vaccine, in order to issue an up-beat report. Since this is not yet in sight we have decided simply to send out a personal message to our Friends and Supporters.
Ian and Celia spent January visiting relatives in Australia and New Zealand, and arrived back at Cylinders in February tanned and relaxed and unaware of the impending health crisis. When we discovered what was happening we remembered the Cultural Documents of FMD project we ran during the Foot-and-Mouth epidemic of 2001-2, and the Pandemics and Society exhibition and conference in Manchester in 2006. These two programmes had put the Littoral trust in contact with experts from Britain and the US in the fields of epidemiology and related medical studies. Some of the papers read during the conference had contained dire forecasts of the possibilities of new pandemics caused by the interaction between animal and human viruses.
Two things were exceptionally clear as the virus spread across Europe and to Britain: that old people and those with existing medical conditions were particularly at risk of requiring hospitalisation if they contracted the new Covid-19 virus, and that the consequent strain on NHS facilities could swiftly bring hospitals to a standstill. By March 2020 it was evident that this was already happening. Our Government was slow to take action at a national level. Ian and Celia took what they at that point hoped was a sensible temporary measure, a decision to go into immediate self-shielding at Cylinders, and close the Merz Barn site to the public from March 13th, ten crucial days before the whole country was forced into lock-down.
Since then there has been no moment at which it has seemed safe to relax vigilance. What has the reality been so far?
As most of you know, aside from being a site dedicated to Kurt Schwitters’ memory, to refugees in general, and to the artists and emergent artists of our own day, Cylinders is seen by us as a stronghold for native Cumbrian wildlife. Before the trust acquired the site at the end of 2006 it had been left untouched for almost thirty years, and during that time had become a refuge for birds, mammals, amphibians, invertebrates, and our local wild plants and fungi. In a normal year the winter months are not especially welcoming to casual visitors so that in spite of occasional irruptions by groups of artists or students there are enough quiet times for our natural residents to maintain their trust in the site. 2020 has given them a summer respite welcomed by all species, although the necessity to improve our boundary walls and fences to combat the increasingly athleticism of the hordes of Herdwick sheep on the fells may have cut down the numbers of the roe and red deer normally resident or visiting here.
So much for the site. How about Ian and Celia? Have they simply been taking life easy?
Celia is now 83, and it has to be said that she has welcomed the change of pace that leaves her time, after attending to the book-keeping and report-writing, for her own pursuits.
Ian on the other hand has been very busy indeed. With the impossibility of travel to meetings and conferences he has had time to work intensively on future programmes for Cylinders and the Merz Barn, including celebrations for the 25th anniversary in 2022 of Schwitters’ Merz Barn art installation. At the same time he has returned to the Littoral Arts parallel programme The Arts and Agricultural Change, and the linked Creative Rural Economy strand.
As a counter-balance to this desk work Ian has spent the last seven months looking after the Cylinders site and buildings, upgrading the cottage, mending the dry-stone walls, dealing with flood and storm damage, and much more. Some of these jobs have necessitated outside help – mainly the felling of trees that have half-fallen and become dangerous – but it is also amazing how much Ian has managed to achieve completely without help.
It is now November. Following promising updates on the imminent availability of an anti-Covid vaccine we are waiting to find out if and when we may expect to receive it, but we are alive to the fact that there are many people who will require to be treated first, and it seems likely that we will have to wait until next spring to be able to re-open Cylinders for visits and residencies.
We are also waiting awhile to publish our plans for future projects, and in particular for the summer of 2022 when we hope to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn installation. There are exciting projects, proposals, and partnerships in the pipe-line which will be unveiled in due course.
In the immediate future we hope to be able to re-launch artist Lizzie Fisher’s project and exhibition ‘Metzger at the Merz Barn’, supported by Cumbria Community Council, in 2021, and we are also working on an HLF assisted project with Ali McCaw, Prism Arts Carlisle, and children from Dissington Primary School, for the summer of 2021.
There is a Future and Littoral Arts and the Merz Barn will be there for it!