Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Perhaps you've seen the flyers around Little Rock. Papered on an electrical box or an otherwise unadorned wall, there lurks a Toto clutching Dorothy, Madonna during her Boytoy incarnation or an ax-wielding Tin Man. Perhaps you've noticed the text ("Got Lube?" asks the Tin Man) or the hashtag (#Glitterrock). And perhaps you've been intrigued, perplexed or even a little ruffled by the salacious appropriations of beloved Oz inhabitants. For the party-throwing masterminds behind the flyers, that's precisely the point: The trio of artists and gay, pop culture-celebrating provocateurs who call themselves the House of Avalon want to change Little Rock, but to do that, they've got to get your attention first.
I first encountered the House of Avalon three at their Second Annual Britney Bxtch party held downtown at Sway in April. I attended because I had been made aware that Chris Crocker, the androgynous defender of Britney Spears' honor in one of YouTube's earliest catchphrase-spawning juggernauts (three words: LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE), would be there. Beckoned by the promise of a weird evening, I showed up to Sway expecting, well, I don't know what, but certainly not what I experienced: a kaleidoscopic visual assault, playful and earnest partying, and such pervasive positive vibes that the place seemed, in some fascinating cognitive dissonance, downright wholesome.
Shortly after I arrived at Sway, I was intercepted by the nightclub's pleather hot pant- and vest-clad proprietor, Jason Wiest, whose day job is as a speechwriter for the governor's office, and who immediately got down to business filling me in on the parties. They were, he told me leaning in, "more than parties." The riding crop he clutched was flicked at especially pertinent thoughts. It's about community. Flick. Building a heart and soul here. Flick. I asked what it was like to operate a gay club in Little Rock. The crop was still. I was briefly distracted by the giant projectors streaming a never-ending loop of Britney Spears videos on the wall: shiny Britney shimmying in "I'm a Slave 4U," pensive Britney amongst rock formations in "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," pigtails and schoolgirl skirt Britney of "Baby One More Time."
The riding crop's return to motion reclaimed my attention. It was challenging, he acknowledged. Branding was the difficulty. Finding the right balance was tricky — if the club was too gay, it turned off the heterosexual community, but if you weren't gay enough, it alienated the gays. There could be no ambiguity either, about whether or not it was a gay bar; that lack of distinction had caused trouble in the past, he said. "What's the solution?" I asked. Well, we go all the way. We go really, really gay. Flick. As I surveyed my surroundings — the Britney Spears videos in a heady loop, the bed set up against the mirror-paneled wall for party-elevating photo ops and the ever-increasing stream of gender-bending costumed revelers — I got it. There could be no confusion that this was a safe place.
I wanted to know about the House of Avalon, which I had heretofore only recognized as an almost Oz-like presence, a name on all the promotional materials. Introductions were made in a hallucinatory manner. I was encircled by the trio: Hunter Devereaux, Grant Vanderbilt, Mark Monroe, plus their celebrity guest, the viral video phenom Crocker. Their mind-bending assortment of gender-binary-smashing costumes, including lacey teddies, pleather and very small denim cut-offs, all assembled with obvious care and worn with intimidating confidence, made me feel far, far from Little Rock. As I remarked on the amazingness of their outfits, overwhelmed and beginning to grasp how unique this environment was in Little Rock, Chris Crocker piped up: "Yeah, this is the first time in a while I have felt totally basic." I had come here to take in some pop cultural weirdness, possibly to gawk at whatever fringe subcultural freak show was being showcased, but as Grant, Hunter and Mark spoke about the mission of these parties, it became clear that they were fulfilling a need for young gays in Little Rock, providing a creative outlet and, frankly, a kind of spiritual center.
They started last year. Hunter, Mark and Grant began throwing house parties in Hillcrest after Hunter and Mark returned home from Brooklyn and were "really bored," having gotten a taste of what it was like "to be totally free." In New York, Hunter and Mark had to get creative to come up with extra money and started little street-corner dance parties in their neighborhood, where a tip bucket would be passed around. This was the genesis of the House of Avalon: After experiencing the openness and freedom of bigger city life, they felt a drive to come back and bring their experiences home. "Why not here?" Hunter said they asked themselves.
One of the central issues with Little Rock, Hunter says, is that "many of the young creative people leave." This is even more so an issue in the gay community here, which Hunter says lacks outlets for open and complete expression, particularly for the young and hyper creative. The House of Avalon guys (the name, by the way, is an homage to the drag culture documentary "Paris Is Burning," where a "house" is a "gay street gang") all have fine arts educations, so their desire for a creative outlet was especially intense. And rather than just bitching about it or leaving town, they decided to do something about it.
The idea behind their early house parties was to create this space by "completely recontextualizing the house," according to Mark. The three official House of Avalon parties (the ones that get styled with "Annual" in their descriptions) are Madonnarama, Britney Bxtch and Disco 3000, and they were first thrown last year in the guys' house, which received a total and jaw-droppingly time-intensive overhaul for each party. For the Britney event, they papered the entire home, floor to ceiling, with images of Spears, each room with a different theme: There was the Young Britney room, the Sexy Britney dance room and a photobooth covered with images from Spears' meltdown circa 2007, when she gave herself a very memorable haircut. The guys had clippers on hand in case partygoers wanted to copy her.
The self-styled social media queens advertised on Instagram and Facebook, tools they say have been invaluable for promoting the parties. Kids turned up from all over, in numbers exceeding their imagining: 250 came to Madonnarama, and each party saw more, which necessitated a bigger (i.e., non-residential) venue, which is how they ended up at Sway.
What they began to see was that Little Rock's young gay community craved and was grateful for the opportunity for totally judgment-free self-expression. I mentioned to Hunter that when I was at Sway, each person I talked to — about half a dozen in all — told me with absolute sincerity that they "needed" the House of Avalon parties. One twenty-something, slim and sporting a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, stilettos and an enviably impeccable face of makeup, gestured to his getup and said, "This, this I couldn't wear anywhere else without getting looks or harassed." "Not even another gay club?" I had asked. He shook his head emphatically, "No way." It took Hunter a moment to digest this story. He was visibly moved, said it gave him goosebumps. "That's validation," he said. "Validation we're doing something right."
Further validation came when some of the more middle-aged members of Little Rock's gay community began to embrace the House of Avalon's spirit. Hunter reported that a few turned up to the first house parties in polos and khakis, and left after just a few minutes. When they came to subsequent parties in costumes and heels and stayed, Hunter took that as a victory. This, to him, was proof that even Little Rock's established gay nightlife scene — in which he never felt comfortable because it plays by "the same old rulebook" — was hungry for change, even if it was slow to admit it.
To that end, the House of Avalon wants everyone to "stop taking things so seriously." Because to them, especially in the context of being a part of the gay community, "Where do we go if we take everything so seriously?" Hunter quoted Orwell's "Animal Farm" to better illustrate this point (or claimed to; the only direct source I could find was a RuPaul tweet): "The rebels eventually forget the purpose of the revolution." Why all the in-fighting within the culture? This seems to capture much of the House of Avalon's ethos: They are "politically incorrect yet sensitive," and seek to playfully offend or confuse to get people to talk but also just to relax.
This spirit is made manifest in the aesthetics and themes of the parties. Conversations with the three of them are peppered with pop culture references (they love Miley Cyrus, Cher and "Party Monster": "anything irreverent, anything cult-y") that demand fluency in both the high and low brow. John Waters is also something of a spirit animal ("To know bad taste you have to know all the rules of good taste") and they bring new meaning to being fans of the "The Wizard of Oz." Besides their three main parties, they host a Friday night party at Sway called the House of Avalon playhouse. The themes for these parties vary, but one of the first was Oz-themed. They decorated Sway with images of poppies, and promoted the party with fliers adorned with Dorothy and the tagline "I Don't Think We're in Little Rock Anymore."
When I asked the House of Avalon what's next for them, there was no talk of leaving. It's all about what they can do here in town. They mention more parties, screen printing shirts, zines and maybe a store. They've started something, and they want to see it through. Grant summed it up best: "We're doing God's gay work for young people in Little Rock."
The next House of Avalon party is May 30 at Sway and will be ages 18 and up. It is "Intergaylactic" themed and costumes are encouraged.