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Penn State Laureate Andrew Belser brings distant generations together through FaceAge

by on July 03, 2017 12:18 PM

Growing up, Andrew Belser was surrounded by a large family. Many of his relatives lived into their 90s, with a few breaking the century mark. Belser’s experiences with his older family members ingrained in him a different view of aging.

“There’s a lot of focus on what you lose, what you can’t do,” says Belser, a professor of movement, voice, and acting who was recently named Penn State’s laureate for 2017-18. “There are older people doing all kinds of things and if you talk to a lot of older people they say ‘I look in the mirror and I guess I’m 75 but I feel like I’m not 75.’ That is a perception mostly.”

Belser realized that distant generations spending less and less time together was causing this fear of aging.

“It occurred to me that maybe there’s something lost in our understanding because the generations aren’t with each other as much,” Belser says. “Maybe younger people don’t get a first-hand embodied understanding of what aging is. That felt important to me and it also felt important to me to give an inclusive environment for the older people to begin to understand younger people.”

This is where the FaceAge project began. 

The plan would be to bring strangers with many generations between them together to talk about life while studying each other’s faces and describing them. Soon, each volunteer would touch his or her partner’s face. Over three days of filming, the partners would explore issues like gender, sexuality, and ethnicity through the experience of aging.

While at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, in 2011, Belser created a pilot version of FaceAge. When he joined Penn State in 2013, the full version of FaceAge was in progress.

More than 160 people volunteered to be part of the FaceAge film. After screen-testing the applicants for their ability to open up and their willingness to be honest, 12 people were selected, with six older than 65 and six not yet in their mid-20s. Pairs were chosen that mixed gender, race, and sexuality, among other attributes.

The 56-minute film is split into six chapters — Assumptions, Mask & Deception, Memory, Mortality, What the Face Holds, and Being Seen. Each chapter takes viewers on a journey through different intricacies of aging. The film is played on a loop with every chapter working as a starting point for a new viewer.

Shown on three screens that partially surround the viewer, FaceAge is unlike other movies. Each screen shows various images or film clips with one audio channel accompanying them all. Depending on where the viewer looks at any given moment, he or she is having a different experience than the viewer alongside, and it even differs from previous viewing experiences.

Starting the project, Belser expected older generations to be more interested in watching the final product. He was surprised by the interest shown by college-age viewers.

“Initially, I have to admit, I thought that the older people would be more interested in watching,” says Belser. “That’s not true, they’re definitely interested in watching but the people 20 and 21 years old are really interested in this project, in part because it’s moving. Aging breaks down other kinds of barriers between people.”

FaceAge isn’t just for college students and older generations to connect. FaceAge has been beneficial for a wide array of people.

“The use of it is broad now,” Belser says. “It’s starting to be used to train healthcare professionals to look at how aging is a bias and to help change some perceptions around aging. It will be used in a number of universities this year for education of all sorts and it’s available for quite a lot of outlets.”

As the director of the Arts & Design Research Incubator in the College of Arts and Architecture, Belser partnered with the Center for Healthy Aging in the College of Health and Human Development as well as the Center for Geriatric Nursing Excellence in the College of Nursing to make FaceAge possible.

As Penn State laureate, Belser will be touring FaceAge throughout Pennsylvania. He also has plans set to have the film shown at every Penn State campus as well as the IAGG World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics in San Francisco, among other places. After the laureate tour, FaceAge will be taken on a national tour.

Belser is looking forward to working with LeadingAge to distribute FaceAge across the country as well as working with WPSU to make international and more localized versions of the film.

“This work around FaceAge feels like an artful engagement with culture in a difference-making way,” Belser says. “I could make moving and aesthetically beautiful art that could also have a role in shifting the perceptions of aging. I couldn’t imagine a better life.”

The focus on togetherness in Penn State President Eric Barron’s All-In campaign is something that Belser wants FaceAge to encourage and bring about between generations.

“I think FaceAge can help illuminate that quality of Penn State that is a ‘We Are’ quality,” says Belser. “It’s the slogan and we say it all the time but it’s a profound thing, to belong to a community and FaceAge is really about belonging to each other. No matter what differences we have, we belong together, and it’s not because we wear blue and white, it’s because we are part of a community of humans.”

To learn more about FaceAge, visit faceage.org.

 

 

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