Derelict for a decade and recently voted the ugliest building in the borough of Camden, the monolithic Sorting Office on New Oxford Street used to be the busiest Post Office branch in London, delivering around two million items of mail per week. If the whispers in the architectural press are accurate it will soon be flattened to make way for another Norman Foster corporate footprint. But for the last three months it's hosted Kutlug Ataman's extraordinary installation 'Kuba'.
You enter the abandoned building through a makeshift wooden corridor. The interior decor is coated with dust and grime in the latest crackhouse chic. Stencilled signs beckon you past broken windows, up graffiti covered stairwells, across dimly-lit industrial-sized floorspaces haunted by dead machinery until you hear a collective murmuring reverberating in the air above you. Close your eyes and the voices rise and fall in a dissonant chorus as if sequenced by some avant-chant composer of chaotic laments. Ascend another flight of steps and you'll find forty televisions simultaneously playing forty interviews with residents of Kuba.
Each television is a different model, each perched on a cabinet in front of an armchair and a two-bar electric fire. The cabinets and armchairs are all different shapes and sizes and are on loan from a local charity project that redistributes furniture. These variant replications enable Ataman to construct a mise en scene that echoes the contrasting descriptions each resident gives of Kuba itself. The place shapeshifts between being a temporary autonomous zone, an impoverished shanty town, a refuge for outlaws and outcasts, and a collective hallucination. It is (or was) located in Istanbul - that schizophrenic city where historians like to declare East meets West (somehow neglecting to highlight the current lack of contact between inhabitants of the European and Asian sides of the city that might endanger such exotic fantasies).
The personalized viewing spaces, with their own secret domestic history, provide the most obvious port of entry into Ataman's compelling multi-portrait of a seemingly fragile community. Select a comfortable chair or an intriguing face on screen (or even an ugly cabinet) and you'll soon find yourself in the position of a passive interviewer sucked into horrific narratives of oppression, torture, addiction and violence. Stay for a while and you'll also witness a powerful underlying resistance to the metronomic inevitability of the tragedies being told.
Although Ataman's Kuba was initially shown in a more conventional setting in Pittsburgh (where it won the Carnegie Prize) it was commissioned by Artangel, the pioneering UK arts organisation committed to exhibiting art in all kinds of unlikely territories beyond the white cubes of the gallery and museum system. From London the work will move to a railway station in Stuttgart before relocating to Vienna and then on to a passenger ferry terminal in Sydney before returning to Istanbul in 2006. Kuba will mutate with each new environment, provoking new resonances in each location. As a site that once trafficked in correspondence from all corners of the globe but now stands defunct and damned, the Sorting Office is an inspired location for the communication of Ataman's holistic work. Kuba is a message that echoes in every society, an alternative history that usually remains unread.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London