One Great Reader, Series 2, No. 8: Isabella Burley
Isabella Burley is the Editor-in-Chief of Dazed. She has been since 2015. There was a redesign of the magazine earlier this year and a renewed emphasis on reading it, and not mostly looking at it, and as a result of both I re-subscribed. Isabella's editor's letter in the latest issue (#269) even begins with these words in large type: "Read Up, Act Up." See? This Autumn 2020 issue is a BLM tour-de-force and it deserves to win an industry award when the time comes.
Two months ago a long-time dream of Isabella's came true: she opened her own bookstore in London devoted to her primary passions of art, photography, fashion, and especially, erotica. It's called Climax (great name, huh?) and I have a feeling it's like looking and shopping directly from her own shelves—I imagine she's the best hand-selling proprietor in London! I don't know how she is willing to part with some of the rarities she is offering, but she is, so find @climaxbooks on IG and give her more than just a follow.
While on the topic of physical material, I want to bring to your attention the formation of a new institution in Oslo, Norway: the International Library for Fashion Research. The ILFR, which in its digital incarnation was unveiled on Oct. 15 with more than 5,000 documents, will open its physical doors to the public next spring. It aims, according to its pitch book, to be “the most comprehensive and important facility of specialized fashion research—and the most unique archive of modern fashion publications in the world.” I pulled all that from last week's NY Times' article about it, and besides this development being of interest to most anyone who loves fashion's printed matter, the very cool thing is that Isabella is on the distinguished board. Bored she ain't! -Wes Del Val
WDV: What have you read in your life that has most opened your mind to the fabulous diversity found in human sexuality?
IB: I can’t pinpoint one exact thing, but I think I probably read too much Anaïs Nin as a teenager—and I remember Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye blowing my mind when I was about 16. On a visual level, I think my interest in erotica began when I interviewed Cosey Fanni Tutti as part of her one-day event, Cosey Complex, at the ICA in 2010. I was 19 and it completely blew my mind! Learning about her early work (which often involved her posing for pornographic magazines and stripping under the alias Scarlet) taking the language of pornographic materials and subverting it as a sort of punk statement. That felt incredibly radical back then, and still does now. It left a strong impression on me.
And what of recent radical things you’ve read which have also left strong impressions?
The last issue of Dazed was a very inspiring one to work on and edit. We invited six different guest editors, including Janaya ‘Future’ Khan, Hank Willis Thomas, Anonymous Club, Grace Wales Bonner, Noname and Samuel Ross to edit a section and work on a cover each. Janaya ‘Future’ Khan wrote a very moving and deeply personal tribute to John Lewis, and was in conversation with Malkia Devich-Cyril and Thandiwe Abdullah, which I encourage everyone to read.
Which magazines’ archives (from any time) do you wish you could raid?
All of SWISH publications’ magazines—particularly Madame in a World of Fantasy, Claws and Smooth. They were such incredible underground outlets for rubber, latex and fetish enthusiasts in the 70s, 80s and 90s. SWISH notoriously would get shut down by the police all the time, so I’m sure it would’ve been fun to be around to witness (or work on) all of that.
Ah niche skin mags! What are your memories of first seeing this content in print and what have such magazines meant to you in your life amongst your other reading interests?
I only really discovered them in my twenties, and they are less for reading and more for spending hours looking at the visual identity. For example, Claws has this amazing hand-drawn illustration of a claw with pointy sexy nails as a sort of symbol that they occasionally featured on the cover. All the photoshoots are so wild!
Now whose bookshelves do you wish you could raid and take what you wanted for Climax?
John Waters. Just imagine what you would find? Also, Hilton Als (not for Climax, but for myself). He recently did a video interview for the Yale photography department series (which I encourage everyone to watch, Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans and LaToya Ruby Frazier have done ones too) and you can see this incredibly rich and overflowing bookshelf behind him. At one point, he goes to turn off his washing machine leaving his shelf in full view, and it's pretty cool. I definitely paused it to have a good look.
Glad to have the tip on Hilton, I would have paused for sure as well.
I’ve always wished John would do a video series where he just goes through his shelves book-by-book and gives us his thoughts! I’d even pay for it...
Oh so would I! Someone should tell him he has two very eager paying subscribers...
What do you consider the coolest books on your shelves?
My copy of Yayoi Kusama’s An Orgy of Nudity, Love, Sex & Beauty, Vol 1, No. 1, the periodical she self-published in 1969. It’s such an important piece of counterculture ephemera and so incredibly rare. I feel lucky to have found it. I also love the hot pink Cosey Fanni Tutti VHS A Study in Scarlet from 1987 that I have, too. It was made using domestic VHS equipment and only 160 were ever produced. I bought it from a woman on eBay and it belonged to her late husband, so it feels special that he held onto it for so long.
You surely have a few more, no? “Cool” always catches people’s attention, so can you share some others?
Cool is overrated! I sort of hate the whole trend of some books becoming so cool, they become too generic somehow. But other ones I love are, Carrie Mae Weems Kitchen Table series book, an early Martine Syms zine called Fools (which is a fictional love story), some old VHS tapes from the release of Richard Kern’s Hardcore. I have both the 1992 US edition and the 1994 French edition. The cover is insane! I have some very weird old German medical books (found in Berlin as a teenager) and also this amazing OMA catalogue from 1995 from an exhibition at TN Probe in Tokyo. It has all these crazy graphics, and stickers and mad neon typography pages. Each page feels like you are in Tokyo. There are also some beautiful Tokyo landscapes by Nobuyoshi Araki, too.
I’m not sure if you also find, but the book I’ve discovered last seems to always be the coolest? Right now that is Aura Rosenberg’s Head Shots book (which I’ll be selling soon on Climax). It’s all of these incredible black and white images of male artists climaxing—including Mike Kelley and John Baldessari—alongside fiction by Gary Indiana and Lynne Tillman.
Yes, that is true, the latest and especially the next are usually the coolest.
Which writers upset you but you don’t like missing what they have to say?
I don’t think there has ever been a writer who has upset me, but there have been many I’ve found hard to read and only years later been able to get into. Kathy Acker is one for sure. And also Constance DeJong. I’ve had a copy of Modern Love for about five years and it was only this summer that I managed to read it (after many failed attempts). I loved it, and have a copy of her Top Stories issue #15 from 1983 coming from New York next week. Now I want to read everything. It’s weird how it happens, but I also believe there is a time and a place in your life that you are meant to consume the work of certain writers. And five years later, it’s the right time.
What book should all of London be reading in November? New or old, doesn’t matter, just one which would be a positive thing if people from all walks of life were seeing and thinking about those specific words?
There isn’t one specific London-specific book that comes to mind. I grew up with a German mother and New Zealand father, so I’ve never been drawn to Britishness in that way or found a piece of text that encaptures my experience of London. I’m taking a week off this month, so I’ll be re-reading Hilton Als’ White Girls and I just got a copy of Eileen Myles’ book of poetry, Evolution (which I bought from another amazing independent bookseller in Scotland called Burninghouse Books). Oh, and my boyfriend and I started reading Gary Indiana’s Tiny Fish that Only Want to Kiss in the back of his car when it broke down one summer evening and we had four hours to kill, so I want to finish that.
Sometimes when you spent most of your week reading magazine copy, the last thing you want to do is read! An occupational hazard. But these I’m excited to get into.
I think great readers manage to soldier through...
What are important magazine pieces to you which most helped form you into the editor you are today?
In 2017 New York magazine did a cover story called “Database of Desire” which was an in-depth analysis of the last ten years of Pornhub data. It took the form of a longform essay, but also highly detailed sexual almanac—basically strange trends that emerged from their analysis of data. It highlighted the racism of the porn industry alongside strange facts—like did you know searches for Daddy went up 1,361% on Father’s Day? And that Kim Kardashian’s sex tape has been viewed 144 million times? I’m not sure if this piece has helped form me into the editor I am today, but the dynamism of how they presented all of that information was really fascinating to me. I love the mix of long-form storytelling and then strange facts presented in a digestible way as data analysis. I go back to it time and time again as a reference.
Yes, that was an excellent, very New York piece. Pornhub is surely sitting on some of the most fascinating data of any company today.
If you could travel anywhere in the world for a week with a living writer you admire, who would it be and where would you go?
To travel anywhere in the world right now would be a dream come true. I think being in New York with Kathy Acker in the 80s would’ve been pretty cool. For a living writer, probably Charlie Fox. Not sure we would need to go anywhere, his imagination is wild and trippy enough. A graveyard in London would do! Also my good friend Amelia Abraham (she published her debut book, Queer Intentions, a few years ago). I would die to go to Las Vegas with her. We would probably end up getting married for fun and then lose all our money on slot machines.
You have 100 pounds to spend in a newsagent this weekend. What are you buying?
I think I would genuinely find that pretty difficult to do as I think most magazines in the UK are quite uninspiring at the moment. If I was in the US, however, I would have much more fun—the New Yorker, New York, National Geographic, T magazine and of course the weird American car magazines, porn etc. There is a newsagent in Miami that I go to anytime I’m there that has a great collection of more recent porn magazines and also classic American gems. Oh and they have a great candy selection, too.
Funny, classic case of the grass is greener on the other side as I feel just the opposite. I find European magazines so much more dynamic than 90% of what we have here, especially for the subjects I’m interested in. By the time they get here with shipping and distribution costs added in they get to be prohibitively expensive.
Curious what porn you’re buying in print these days. I’m amazed so many have held on and I’m intrigued by people still purchasing them.
Very true, the grass is always greener. I don’t really buy new porn, but the ones I last picked up in Miami were called Interstate Swinger and Swingers Today. They are still in their plastic packaging, but the front and back covers were so great I had to get them.
What were your bookstore inspirations you had in mind while opening and setting up Climax?
There are so many bookstores I love and have a very deep respect for: Donlon, November, IDEA books in London; Karma, Mast, Dashwood in New York and Alias books in LA. But I guess I wanted Climax to have a point of difference in the curation of material—that we could go from a copy of Yayoi Kusama’s The Orgy to a Valie Export stamp, to Deana Lawson’s first monograph or an early invitation card from Carrie Mae Weems from the 90s, to a copy of the fetish magazine Madame in a world of Fantasy. Mainly, I was curious if I could pull it off, or if it would just seem totally mad! But I think with the very clever visual identity from Christopher Lawson and the brilliant website design from Simon Rogers we sort of did it. The response has been completely overwhelming and made this idea that has been in my mind for half a decade feel worthy.
Big congratulations for getting to see your dream become reality! I hope its success blows past your expectations. Thanks Isabella!
Isabella Burley, photo by Jacob Lillis