Young and old, face to face

by Cherie Winner
September 28, 2016

It’s such a simple gesture, a hand reaching out to stroke a cheek.

Between friends and loved ones, it conveys caring, trust, tenderness. Between people who met just a few hours ago and who think they don’t have much in common, it can feel scary, threatening, too intimate.

It can also dissolve the emotional and perceptual barriers between the people involved. Andy Belser had that in mind when he came up with the framework for FaceAge, a video installation that opens Friday, Sept. 30, at the HUB-Robeson Center.

Belser, director of the Arts & Design Research Incubator and a professor of movement, voice, and acting in Penn State’s School of Theatre, envisioned a space in which pairs of strangers, separated by a gulf of decades, would share their assumptions and experiences about aging. To that end, he matched young (18-22) and older (70+) volunteers for three days of videotaped revelation and reflection.

From the very beginning, their talk was illuminating. But the physical encounter of bringing hand to face, midway through the first day of filming, when the partners were still getting to know each other, marked a turning point in their conversations.

“Touching each other’s faces seemed to be the icebreaker,” says Belser. “Because once you’ve touched someone’s face and really cared for them, and felt that care? Everything seems to change after that.”


A young man touches an older man's face

During a FaceAge encounter, young and old gently explored each other's faces through touch.

IMAGE: FaceAge Creative Team

Confronting the future

Belser designed the project to bring together people of different generations in a way that would take them deeper than a typical social exchange.

“In our culture, young people don’t tend to approach old people and older people don’t tend to approach younger people,” he says. “FaceAge is intentionally trying to help communities of people take the time to see one another differently.”

The project put participants in situations where they could, and almost had to, consider the prospect of their own aging. In one setting, they were filmed through a two-way mirror as they responded to their own reflection and to images of how they looked when younger and to computer-generated images of how they are likely to look when older. In other sessions, the older ones reflected on where they’ve been and what their lives have become, and the younger ones dealt with feelings that at least some of them seemed to be reluctant to face.

Belser thinks their reluctance stems, in part, from an oddity of human psychology. “A researcher at Princeton did a study on why people procrastinate, and found out that when we imagine ourselves as ten years older, we imagine a stranger,” he says. “We don’t imagine ourselves. People of these students’ ages, they think 50 is ‘the frontier.’ So they don’t plan for it. And they certainly don’t have a way to consider how aging will unfold slowly and maybe even beautifully.”

FaceAge postcard2

FaceAge allowed young participants to envision what their own aging process might be like. "When we imagine ourselves as 10 years older, we imagine a stranger," says project director Andy Belser.

IMAGE: FaceAge Creative Team

The touching and the nearness were key, says Belser. He wanted the participants to be in the same space, within arm’s reach of each other, as they got to know each other and explored their own perceptions about aging.

“It feels important, to me, that one’s body becomes understood up close—that one could maybe begin to imagine, through touch, that aging is not such a scary thing. That those initial perceptions and assumptions about aging are challengeable, and maybe even changeable.”

Coming together

The idea for the project came to him while he was visiting the Face Aging Institute at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he was Chair of Theatre before coming to Penn State in 2013. The Institute develops software to map and predict the changes in people’s faces as they age, primarily for use in criminal forensics. “I saw it, and was just so moved by this question of, how do our faces change, and how do we change, as we age?”

He enlisted partners in the Department of Film Studies there, and then set out to find volunteers to be filmed for a 2011 pilot version of FaceAge. For the new, fully-mounted version,  more than 160 people answered his call for participants. “We screen-tested them to see how they would respond,” he says. “We weren’t selecting for beauty; we were selecting for, would they be able to reveal anything? Would they freeze up? The contract was, be willing to be open and honest about what you experience, and be ready for a new experience. Are you? And they would say, ‘Yeah, I am.’”

The 12 people selected (six in each age group) were matched in pairs that mixed genders, races, and other personal attributes. One pair matched an older, straight, Caucasian woman with a younger African-American man who is gay.

“They both were concerned about that,” says Belser. “He was afraid that she would see him as completely ‘other.’ She said, ‘I thought, oh, how is this going to be?’ And they ended up just adoring each other and taking a selfie together. So it was a way to kind of break down some of those issues that it wasn’t intended to, necessarily. Aging is just a framework to look at who we are and the things we deal with.”

The film that debuts this week runs just under an hour and has six chapters: Assumptions, Mask & Deception, Memory, Mortality, What the Face Holds, and Being Seen. The chapters are presented in a set order, but the film will play as a continuous loop; viewers can come in and start watching at any point, and it will make sense.

Watching FaceAge is an active, almost inter-active, experience. Belser’s original conception for the piece called for it to be shown on three screens, to place viewers in the middle of a conversation between two participants, but after the pilot version and two full years of editing the voluminous footage to create the full version, it evolved into something more. What appears on the screens is more variable than originally planned—different angles, different moments—and the visual story you see depends on which screen you’re watching at any given moment. In test screenings of parts of the film, Belser noticed that many viewers sat through it more than once, or left after one viewing but returned later to see it again. “We had no idea they would do that,” he says. “People come back to it. It gives you infinite opportunities to change the narrative for yourself.”

Into the community

This full version of the project was in the works when Belser arrived at Penn State. The project’s lead partner is the Arts & Design Research Incubator in the College of Arts and Architecture. The Center for Healthy Aging at the College of Human Health and Human Development is the lead community engagement partner, extending the project into the local community, and the College of Nursing is the lead research partner investigating the project as a template for multi-disciplinary work on health concerns.

“The different perspectives that those partners bring have added layers of possibilities, so now I can imagine it going to more different places,” Belser says. “This is a big team, and there are a lot of times we have meetings together, where the artists are with the social science researchers, and it’s really wonderful. People often don’t know what trans-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary research looks like. When they see this, they go, ‘that’s it.’”

"It's not just an installation to look at; it's an installation you tend to participate in."

A full slate of community-engagement events is slated in and around State College this fall, including intergenerational story circles and visits to local retirement communities. Belser also has invitations to take FaceAge to other communities and even overseas.

“Museums are interested because it’s not just an installation to look at; it’s an installation you tend to participate in,” he says. “The community engagement following or surrounding the viewing is, to us on the project, as important as the video installation. And that’s what museums are wanting. They want to make it the center of  larger inter-generational programming.”

A personal journey

The project has taken on special meaning for Belser, who says he’s always felt at ease, even as a kid, with people much older than himself. He grew up in central Pennsylvania, in a large extended family whose members routinely lived into their 90s. Some, like a favorite uncle, made it past 100. “I can remember putting my hand on Uncle Eddie’s back—he was probably 85 at that point—and thinking, ‘my God, he’s so strong!’ So to me, 85 was nothing,” says Belser.

He knew that outlook wasn’t shared by most of his young friends. “When I was 16 I had a girlfriend who said, ‘When I get to be 55 I want to die, because I don’t want to get old.’ I never understood that.”

Even so, working on FaceAge has pushed him to think in new ways about aging—and about youth. “There’s something in me now that looks at younger people differently, where I have a certain kind of understanding of them enjoying their youth, with a little more softness,” he says.

He’s looking at himself differently, too. “I started this project when I was 51. Now I’m 56, and in those five years I can see different attitudes in myself,” he says. “The project has deepened my own appreciation for the challenges we all face. When I look in the mirror, clearly I see myself aging. And I have to say, I like it.”

FaceAge will be on display in Arts Alley at the HUB-Robeson Center from Sept. 30 through Dec. 9, weekdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. An opening reception will be held from 4-6 p.m. on Sept. 30. On Oct. 28 and 29, audiences will be asked for their reactions, as part of research to assess the work’s impact. Intergenerational story circles will be held at the HUB in October and November, and other community engagement events are available. Visit the FaceAge website for more details.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017