Installation project connects generations by offering glimpse of the future

March 30, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The reactions were intense. Some of the participants cried, some got angry and some stood in shocked silence. The television screens loomed in front of them, displaying images of their distorted and unrecognizable faces. “That’s not me,” a number of them whispered. 

But it was them. The six participants were staring at themselves, digitally aged by up to 30 years. The projection was part of the first showing of “Face.Age: A Multimedia Template for Cross-Generational Interactions,” an art installation in North Carolina established by Andrew Belser, a Penn State faculty member who uses technology to bring the young together with the old.

It’s the reactions of those first participants in 2011 that still amaze Belser, professor of movement, voice and acting in the Penn State School of Theatre and director of the Arts and Design Research Incubator in the College of Arts and Architecture. Belser is one of the creators of the Face.Age installation, an idea conceived with a former colleague while he worked at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

“I originally got the idea for Face.Age from a technology lab that collects data sets of aging faces,” said Belser. “Computer algorithms take thousands of pieces of data from faces of varying ages, ethnicities and gender, and the lab assists law enforcement agencies by using this data to construct what persons of interest look like, even if they’re 50 years older.”

"I found one of the main themes surrounding the idea of getting older is a huge disconnect older people feel from younger generations and the community overall. I wanted to do something that really challenges people to bridge this disconnect.” — Andrew Belser, professor in the College of Arts and Architecture

Belser was fascinated with the imagery. Already yearning to produce something focused on crossing multiple generations, the technology of face aging helped cement the conceptualization of Face.Age.

“I started doing a lot of research around aging, and I found one of the main themes surrounding the idea of getting older is a huge disconnect older people feel from younger generations and the community overall,” said Belser. “I wanted to do something that really challenges people to bridge this disconnect.”

And Face.Age definitely takes on this challenge. The crux of the original installation in North Carolina is video footage of conversations between younger participants (18–20 years old) and older participants (70–90 years old) studying, describing and touching one another’s faces and exploring their perceptions of their own faces at different times throughout their lives. Younger participants are shown imagery of their faces digitally aged in 10-year increments, and they explore their reactions to these images with the older participants.

“In my research I found that younger generations don’t typically spend meaningful time with older people anymore,” said Belser. “They don’t have reference points of what it will be like for them as they age, so when they think of themselves at 60 or 70 it’s like thinking about a complete stranger. Seeing themselves as older was really eye-opening.”

Belser is hoping the second showing of the Face.Age installation — planned for 2017 in various still undetermined locations — will be eye-opening for audiences, too. Updated interview footage will be projected onto three, 12-by-18, slightly curved panels placed in a semicircle in the center of a large room. These panels will encircle the audience, almost fully immersing them in the conversations between participants.

“Ideally, people from all generations will come to Face.Age and feel compelled to have these same types of conversations with each other,” said Belser. “It’s a place we can hopefully start to change the culture of thinking of aging as a bad thing.”

And Belser hopes to extend the cultural impact of Face.Age beyond his own backyard. While speaking about the installation at the Gerontological Society of America’s Annual Scientific Meeting in 2012, he was approached by researchers from Japan, Korea and China interested in taking Face.Age internationally.

“A lot of these countries are experiencing a culture shift similar to what we have in the United States in regard to the relationships among generations,” explained Belser. “In China, for example, a lot of young people are leaving their nuclear families for work and are losing contact that’s always been a strong part of their culture. I have a feeling some of the first installation sites for this Face.Age are going to be international.”

While the second showing of the Face.Age installation is still in the planning phase, it’s possible a different version could be showing up on television screens before then. A television producer who has worked with PBS, HBO and the Discovery Channel is working with Belser and his North Carolina-based collaborators on converting the installation into a feature-length documentary.

But Belser says translating the immersive power of Face.Age to a one-dimensional platform is challenging. “This technology immersion of the in-person Face.Age allows people to feel more connected to the conversation happening in front of them,” he explained. “That connection is lost when you’re watching something on television, so we’re looking at different filming and editing techniques to help bring it back.”

And connections are the core of what Face.Age is all about. While Belser plans to continue concentrating on cross-generational conversations in the next showing of the installation, he recognizes the possibilities for other connections.

“There’s a rich field for future explorations,” he said. “We could bring together people across lines of race, gender and class in addition to generations. Face.Age could really reframe the way a diverse community comes together.”


  • participants in Face.Age being recorded

    In Face.Age, older and younger participants talk to each other about what aging means to them.

    IMAGE: Andrew Belser
  • close-up of a Face.Age participant's face

    A participant from the first Face.Age installation in North Carolina.

    IMAGE: Andrew Belser
  • recording setup of the Face.Age installation

    Belser records Face.Age participants from an over-the-shoulder angle as well as straight on.

    IMAGE: Andrew Belser
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Last Updated July 28, 2017