A cramped, sweaty carriage on the Central Line might not be the first place you’d go looking for love, but throughout history public transport and its adjacent spaces have served as a hotspot for sexual (and particularly LGBTQ+) liberation. This history is at the centre of Love Underground, a new project from photographer El Hardwick and artist Anna Schlimm, which infiltrates TfL with a hidden language of desire.
Taking inspiration from public transport’s legacy as a popular cruising spot, as well as queer communication tactics like the Hanky Code and Polari, Schlimm spearheaded a new covert visual language – dubbed the “Cruise Code” – in 2022, as part of a broader DIY residency they named Alt Art on the Underground.
Described as a “covert communication system for lonely hearts who are tired of missed connections”, the Cruise Code uses tube station names to symbolise romantic or sexual desires. Fashioned into wearable pins in LGBTQ+ colour schemes, these underground symbols (in every sense of the word) can be worn to communicate desires that it’s not always safe or accepted to speak about in public, signalling those in-the-know.
On the other hand, the code opens up diverse romantic and sexual opportunities outside the stale old interfaces of dating apps, aiming to reimagine London – and its transport system – as an “erotic commons”. How does it work exactly? Well, each of the badges signifies what you’re looking for to fellow travellers, based on which side you wear it. “Paddington” for instance tells them you’re a bear (worn on the left) or a bear lover (on the right). “Bank” tells them you’re a sugar mummy/daddy, or sugar baby, respectively. “Bond street” signals a bondage kink. “Cockfosters”... you get the idea.
Originally born out of Schlimm’s interest in anarchist modes of cultural production and context-specific art, the Cruise Code has now been interpreted by Hardwick in a series of portraits of LGBTQ+ people, demonstrating the covert system in action on the London Underground. Take a closer look in the gallery above.
The photos themselves will be exhibited at The Old Waiting Room in Peckham Rye on Friday. This is being held alongside the launch of a website for the Cruise Code project, which will allow visitors to create their own DIY versions of the badges, and enter the erotic commons themselves to find folks that match up with their desires.
Love Underground will be on show as part of a group exhibition at The Old Waiting Room in Peckham Rye, opening November 10