Voices off

Contemporary art - A babelish ghetto is transported into a Royal Mail sorting office. Richard Cork i

Viewed from the pavement, the derelict sorting office in New Oxford Street presents a funereal and startling facade to passers-by. Painted black and spattered with printed warnings about guard-dog patrols, the walls have now been invaded by capital letters in raw pink paint proclaiming the mysterious word "KUBA". Guided by an equally puce arrow pointing to the door, I go in.

I find myself in a graffiti-besmirched area dominated by an ominous notice announcing the building has a "Security Alert Status". By the time I climb the stairs to the first floor, the preponderance of broken glass and smashed-up furni-ture has become oppressive. It is hard to believe that, from this dilapidated building, almost two million letters and packages were once delivered by post every week. "Fuck Frisk," shouts a graffito on the wall leading to an immense space, as daunting as a redundant hangar.

Deep in this shabby void, the sounds of Kutlug Ataman's ambitious project for Artangel start to assert themselves. A tantalising tumult of voices can be heard, merging in a roar through the old lift-shafts at the centre. Bewilderment impels me to clamber up another grubby staircase and disregard a notice on a door insisting that "All Staff Are Forbidden Access. Action Will Be Taken Against Anyone Found On The Floor Unless On Official Business". But no reprisals ensue when I open the door and discover an even more vast, open floor stretching ahead.

Here, among dismal concrete columns, the roar becomes a cacophony. The voices all seem oblivious of each other, and the views of banal office blocks through the windows contain nothing to distract my attention from the 40 television screens ranged in rows before me. My eyes scan the subtitles on the screens. "Life was very hard, we suffered a lot," mutters one interviewee, while another admits that "I was ashamed" and a third recalls how "I didn't have hope for the future". Although the age span of the faces on screen is enormous, ranging from restless babies to deadpan old women, the prevailing mood is despondent. Life can be dauntingly harsh in Kuba. Kuba is an area of Istanbul near the airport where a shanty town emerged in the late 1960s. United only by their scorn for state law-enforcers, its inhabitants rely instead on community solidarity to protect themselves, the nickname of their ghetto coined perhaps in the hope of summoning up the defiant spirit behind Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Some of the people filmed by Ataman still describe themselves as "leftist". All the same, anyone who settles down to listen to the voices soon realises that a remarkable diversity of races, religions and political beliefs coexists in this beleaguered yet oddly resilient Turkish enclave.

Ataman, born in Istanbul, ensures that the full multifariousness of Kuba's occupants comes through. The press and clamour of voices would be indigestible if I knew the language. But because Turkish words are entirely beyond my comprehension, the noise is acceptable and enriches the unforced, authentic intensity of the installation.

For a moment, at least, it seems a relief to come across little Arafat, a mischievous boy who cannot resist standing on his head and breaking into hip-hop dances on the rug. But even this grinning imp admits that his life is dominated by fights with boys from other parts of the city.

Other young men, by contrast, do not need to brag about their toughness at all. Fevzi, a quietly contemplative loner uprooted from his home in the country, recalls army service, the brutal torture of political prisoners and the torching of a room with petrol. "Sometimes I still see it and psychologically I lose myself," he says quietly, before recalling that "the bullet went in the woman's eye and came out the back of her head". He sounds hugely relieved to be living, now, in Mother Hatun's lodging-house, a place of refuge for displaced wanderers. Then suddenly, without any warning, he breaks into song, performing very well in a soulful voice: "The children gathered roses for you./We planted orchards in our hearts for you./ Let the rose gardens surround you . . ."

In the end, however, the prevailing tone of Ataman's installation is far from lyrical. Mehtap sits disconsolate on a bed, surrounded by small, fidgety children: "Six are mine, and three are another woman's." She does not explain why. Most of the time she remains silent and gazes with a wary, puzzled expression at the camera. Mehtap looks exhausted. Then, shockingly, she says: "I lock the children in and go. There could be a fire or something." This lonely woman cleans buildings for a living. "I rush there. I rush back. Some people who see me ask why I hurry so much. I tell them I have to see if my children are all right. I always stay at home." Mehtap keeps lapsing into long silences. "I have no hope," she says. "I get very angry." She sits and stares. "I have no dreams," she says finally. "I was very happy when I was a virgin."

By the time I leave the tumult of voices, it is almost night. But the screens light up the drab, impersonal space with even more intensity than before. This absorbing, deeply felt work is the absolute antithesis of our western obsession with glamorous celebrity interviews and "big brother" voyeuristic games. The people struggling to talk here - brave, foolhardy, stoical, thoughtful, frightened - are, above all, willing to share even the most desolate experience. And, somehow, to go on surviving.

"Kuba" is at 21-31 New Oxford Street, London WC1, Tuesdays to Sundays, until 7 May. Admission free. www.kuba.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Faith invaders