“No tenemos ni para el agua, peor vamos a tener para una computadora”—Madre anónima, Guayaquil (“If we can’t even afford water, how are we going to afford a computer?”—Anonymous mother, Guayaquil)
María José Machado’s action, La silla vacía, offers a visual poetry activated by the use of an empty chair. The chair is a tool for participation as a symbolic response to the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador—a tool for listening to the specific problems within our communities, of seating ourselves on top of these problems, so to speak, to think productively about equally specific ways to solve them through actions that lead to actual legislative change. During the video, the artist performs a tour of the facades of various educational buildings—kindergartens, schools, and universities—spaces dedicated to pedagogy as they are observed in their current calamitous state, many of them closed for a year already due to the global pandemic. During the tour, the voices of children, teenagers, and young adults are heard in response to a single question: How will art help us overcome the pandemic?
La silla vacía is a reflection on how digitization and scarce technological resources in education and public health systems have generated catastrophic results. Machado creates a sense of hope, believing that this lost generation can recuperate through play and learning, improvisation and adaptation, as well as by exploring ideas to improve education and consequently every life and every community. The explicit symbolism of carrying the load, of moving with this chair as a mochila (backpack), and of what it means in the context of a minga (a collective process aiming towards one goal), proffers that sense of care implicit in the education we must offer in cities, in the countryside, as well as through the expressive means of cultural creations to heal and rebuild our societies.
Machado believes that this vista of hope neither begins nor ends with a vaccine, for it must first lie in the capacity for empathy, caring for the social body ruined by inequity. La silla vacía refers to the step of redressing the wound, not leaving things in a state of partial work. Vigilance to ensure that our methods and attention are complete, that we follow through, is what the artist performs in this journey from one educational site of potential to the next—both art and education joined as cathartic spaces for learning as healing, for not only visions of transformation but realizations of policy.