In 2009, Christy Gast was flying from Tampa to Miami when she saw a giant body of water she knew nothing about. Her subsequent research led her to the Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds Lake Okeechobee. Once only ten feet high, and originally constructed with gravel, rock, limestone, sand, and shell, the dike now completely encircles the lake—140 miles—and stands thirty feet high except for a small gap where a stream flows inland. A product of the Hoover era, the dike was built in response to two devastating hurricanes in the late 1920s that caused widespread flooding and killed thousands of people in the region.
Gast told me she has always been captivated by landscape and art and explained that making art provides her with a sense of purpose—a reason to spend a lot of time in a given landscape. She feels a responsibility, she said, to use public land in her work to bring an awareness to people that “Hey, this is here, and it belongs to all of us. This is what your tax dollars are paying for.”
For Gast, the dike was the perfect elevated stage for a performance—an “endurance stage,” she called it, since the performance took place over the course of months. And with the exception of a single biker who rode past her performance one day, she was always alone with the massive structure.
She needed to come up with a way to physically move through the landscape. After watching Busby Berkeley’s film Gold Diggers of 1933, Gast settled on tap dancing as her medium. Gast, who had no idea how to tap-dance, originally planned on hiring someone else to do it. She never found the right person, however, and instead learned to tap-dance herself. In order to create the performance—a dance around the perimeter of the lake atop the dike—she spent a lot of time with the dike itself. In the end, Gast explained, the video she made “forces the viewer to spend time there as well.” Gast not only makes the landscape visible for the viewer, but also makes it an audible experience—crunching across gravel and tapping out rhythms on steel grates, limestone columns, and water tanks.
The outfit she wears in the video is inspired by her research on women who pretended to be men during the Great Depression in hopes of finding work. She imagined herself as a character she described as “a cross-dressing, train-hopping teenage hobo from the Depression era.” When we discussed the lack of representation women have in narratives addressing landscape, she said, “Women don’t have the same agency that I have as the artist, the creator, the performer, the director—the everything.”
For the resulting project, Herbert Hoover Dyke, she edited footage from the months she spent at the dike into an hour-long video in a way that gives viewers the sensation that they are exploring the site alongside her in real time as she moves from the berm down through the fields of tall green grasses stretched out under bright blue skies.
The dance, according to Gast, is a “duet between the body and the landscape.” Gast’s art is an outgrowth of her undergraduate focus in women’s studies—the personal as political—as well as her “reverence for this group of men who did amazing things with raw material.” As a member of a new generation of artists, Gast fuses the seemingly disparate genres of feminist performance art and what she calls “ridiculously large-scale Land Art.”