By Jerry Portwood
The ethereal quality of Toronto-based singer-songwriter Katie Stelmanis's voice blends perfectly with her personal lyrics on Austra's second album, Olympia. The techno throb adds yet another layer to the complex and emotional message on such tracks as "Forgive Me." For the video for the song, Stelmanis worked with Claire Edmondson to craft a sexy, haunting video.
It features another Toronto creative, trans performance artist Judy Virago, who we see searching for something in a foggy park in a haze of night-vision goggles green, along with Ameena, a Toronto sex worker. "I wrote the song about something I did that I don't regret, and I knew I would only be forgiven if there was a true understanding of why I did it," Stelmanis explained via email. "And so, in presenting Ameena and Judy as characters engaging in scandalous sex acts, we are asking that they are understood rather than forgiven."
Watch the Video for "Forgive Me" and read the Q&A with Stelmanis below:
Out: This is a powerful video with lots of intense imagery, and although there are some shadows, what was the decision to not try to hide or obscure the sex worker or the other people who are seen in the park in the video?
Katie Stelmanis: We wanted to explore the concept of forgiveness among groups of people who often find themselves having to explain themselves in society. But rather than apologizing for who they are, the focus is on smaller stories throughout the video between the people they interact with.
Sex is a beautiful thing, and I think that people can have a better understanding of an emotional connection between two people if they understand the sex part of it. For example, I love that Modern Family has a gay couple, but they are never seen kissing or engaging in any even g-rated sex acts which I find frustrating. Queer romance has very little visibility in the mainstream, and I think this is part of the reason why people are still shocked by it. Even in Toronto, my girlfriend and I get stared at all the time if we have public displays of affection.
Is it meant to be a trans woman or is that a question that you didn't want answered and would leave up to the person watching the video?
Judy Virago is a trans performance artist living in Toronto, and she helped shape her character in the video, so yes, we did intend for the viewer to recognize she was trans. She was particularly drawn to the character because of the love story she is a part of. Rather than the focus being on the fact that she is a transwoman, or the adversities she may face in identifying as such, the focus was on her interpersonal relationship with a man. She forgives him, and their tender moment is what is impactful.
What was the creative process like with the director of the video? Was it an idea that began with you or came from the director and you added input?
This video came from a long discussion between myself and Claire. I knew that I didn't want the video to be a hetero-normative interpretation of the concept, but I also wanted to be careful to avoid any sort of stereotype. Originally, I found inspiration from the Manet painting of "Olympia," who is a depicted naked, lying on a bed with a black servant behind her. The significance of that piece is that, contrary to how all other female models had been depicted up to that date, she looks directly at the viewer, indicating that she has power and is in control of her body and sexuality. In the 1800s, this painting was incredibly controversial since it was seen as inapropriate to showcase a woman, most likely a prostitute, with this attitude. So, we wanted to try to work with people who may find themselves misunderstood by mainstream society and try to create a familiar emotional response to their unfamiliar love by our viewers.
How does it relate to the chorus/lyrics: "What do I have to do to make you forgive me?" Is there a deeper need for forgiveness or is the message that an "apology" or "forgiveness" is not needed?
The idea is that we are not asking for forgiveness for what it may seem like at first. Judy Virago is not asking for forgiveness because she is having sex in a park or because she is trans. Ameena is not asking for forgiveness because she is cruising for sex at nighttime. Both characters are part of a more intimate storyline. There is also an element of understanding that is required by the viewer, which I also think is significant. I wrote the song about something I did that I don't regret, and I knew I would only be forgiven if there was a true understanding of why I did it. And so, in presenting Ameena and Judy as characters engaging in scandalous sex acts, we are asking that they are understood rather than forgiven.
With so much attention and criticism directed at online pornography and public sex, were you concerned that people might find it exploitative in some way or that it would promote sex workers or public sex or risky behavior?
We were concerned that people might misunderstand the forgiveness concept, but beyond that we were not worried about exploiting anybody. We chose to work with people who are directly connected to their characters to ensure we could communicate our ideas properly. Ameena has lived as a sex worker in Toronto and she too played a role in how her character was portrayed. Though she is not meant to be specifically depicted as a prostitute, her role in the video is blurry and that was intentional. I believe that when a woman is in control of her choices and she is safe she can live happily as a sex worker. I hope that one day it becomes a more socially acceptable profession so the safety part of it is easier to control.
Would you say this is a "sex positive" video or is it meant to have no judgment: neither positive or negative?
This video is absolutely meant to be sex positive. Tolerance and openness towards sexual and gender diversity is incredibly important to my band. We have always felt that in our position the best we can do is work on maintaining visibility for our queer community. I think visibility eventually equals tolerance because people learn that differences aren't actually scary.