As the punchline of just about any store-bought birthday card suggests, many people harbor a fear of getting older. But a professor at Pennsylvania State University is confronting this phobia through an immersive video installation that aims to cultivate cross-generational empathy.
FaceAge, which originated as a research project, is the brainchild of Andrew Belser, Director of the Arts and Design Research Incubator at Penn State. He envisioned a space in which pairs of younger (18-22) and older (65+) strangers could share their assumptions about and experiences with aging. Footage of the resulting encounters became the basis for the immersive three-screen video and audio installation currently on view in Art Alley at Penn State’s HUB-Robeson Center.
Participants interacting with each other in the video. Photos courtesy of Andy Belser
The inspiration for FaceAge came from the development of age progression tools, principally used by criminologists, which predict how faces will age, based on data points like gender, ethnicity, and other variables. “I found the imagery … to be gripping, not so much for its aesthetic power, but because the images of a person’s face aging through technology suggested taboos and unexplored terrain in our culture. I began to imagine a space that allowed a close study of, and meditation on, aging faces,” Belser tells The Creators Project.
The video installation surrounds viewers with footage of cross-generational encounters. During each interaction, older participants share portraits of their younger selves, while younger participants view digitally-aged images of their own faces. The 56-minute film covers multiple topics related to aging, including: “Assumptions,” “Mask and Deception,” “Memory,” “Morality,” “What the Face Holds,” and “Being Seen.”
Participants in FaceAge interact and share their experiences with aging.
“When the youthful photos of the older participants appear, there’s a sort of ‘snapback’ effect, in which we can see many of the qualities of youth in these older faces,” Belser says. “Somehow, the distance of time becomes a palpably present experience, [confronting us with] the fact that we are all older versions of our younger selves.”
The project aims to impart a sense of timelessness. “The FaceAge installation is designed as a space where time can slow, affording a lingering experience of faces in larger scales and over a duration that is unlikely in social settings. FaceAge is intended as a rich and approachable space where assumptions can fade and empathy can rise,” he explains.
Reaching beyond ageism to touch on factors that impact all relationships and interactions, the project illustrates the lack of social intimacy that results from distancing ourselves from others based on superficial judgments. “Really, the project has become a seed event for people to talk to each other—for community engagement—and that engagement with others has also brought me closer to a deeper sense of my own aging. I am at once more hopeful and a bit more reflective and moved by my aging in many ways,” says Belser.
A participant looks at a digitally aged picture of himself.
FaceAge is on display at Art Alley in Penn State's HUB-Robeson Center through Dec. 9. Belser and his team plan to remount the work in additional venues, so keep an eye on the project website for updates.