North West England

If you go down to the woods today you’ll certainly have a surprise. That is, if you find yourself in the Cylinder’s Estate, Elterwater, home of the final Merz Barn created by Schwitters, and site of quietly unprecedented creative furore.

On entering the damp, quiet woods, the atmosphere becomes electrifying. Tarpaulins are rigged up here and there, protecting the sometimes fervent, sometimes contemplative activity beneath, whilst open fires supply a smokey misty atmosphere following a rainburst a few moments since. Evidence of making is everywhere, as is evidence of thinking, talking, imagining, inventing, playing and musing. There is something apparent that is invisible, atmospheric, like a ghostly presence or a performance just missed, you can feel it but not see it. A ramshackle stone building the size of a garage seems to be the centre of activity, featuring a makeshift kitchen too rustic for the pages of Country Life magazine. Oddball characters wander meaningfully or hang about at a table of recently consumed coffee and crumbs, fashioning an eclectic range of personalities and leaving you to guess their connection– Sculptor? Poet? Academic? Vagabond? Or head of a major national institution perhaps? They are so firmly embedded in the mysterious activity of the woods it is as if you have entered a community that has been here for hundreds of years.

Enter into the world of the Cylinder’s Estate – a small forest and outbuildings that are seeing a new lease of creative life as a promise to the legacy of the past – home to the studio of Kurt Schwitters and his final ‘Merzbau’ installation, now housed at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle.

The Estate is being brought to life again by Littoral Arts, who raised funds to buy the land for the purpose of honouring Schwitters’ life and work. It is a long term development project involving partners such as Tate, ACE, Royal Academy, RCA, Hatton Gallery and MoMA NY. But Littoral haven’t become lost in the grey papers of strategic planning, but remain true to Schwitter’s wish of maintaining a creative space to support today’s artists and nourish their experimentation.

The result is a broad ranging events and talks programme that stretches from architecture and museum-focussed projects that articulate narratives of exile and cultural displacement to contemporary craft learning and fine art student mini residencies. In recent years activities have included constructing a Merz Barn replica in the courtyard of the Royal Academy, auctioning a Damian Hirst donated spin painting, and hosting environmental sustainability and rural regeneration conferences, research seminars, intensive installation workshops and temporary exhibitions, young artists professional development support, schools and local communities projects, performance and networking events.

This year’s DIY Summer School included workshops on steam bent timber structures and sustained architecture, coppicing and hedgerow public arts, augmented with an evening talks programme, film screenings and academic research seminar featuring proposals for a Tate / Merzbau pavilion. The week concluded with a public open day, party and scything event.

It’s not just the content that is making this ongoing programme of activities stand out, but the raw, intimate nature of the events where participants ranging from academics to odd jobs people, curators, musicians, dadaists and more are thrust outside to the harsh yet beautiful elements of Lake District Central. For these seminars you won’t find goodie bags of keyrings and a thick wad of glossy printouts, nor immaculate toilet facilities with posh hand cream. Instead you will be warmly invited to share conversation under a tarp or by a fire, whilst slowly scoffing a beautifully presented array of fresh bread and cheeses, locally gathered fruits and generous amounts of coffee and cake baked in an outside oven constructed from oil cylinders. Throw in an additional spark of evening camp-fire caberet, dada-fests, performance, and fiddle music and you have perfect ingredients for creating an outdoors, eclectic communal experience extraordinaire.