Misha Glouberman is standing in the middle of a circle of 100 participants. He's got a wireless microphone in one hand and another hanging out of the pocket of his crumpled brown suit jacket.
Moving about the circle looking very much like a young Zero Mostel on speed, Glouberman, the hilariously engaging facilitator of Toronto's first "unconference" for artists dealing with copyright and the Internet, asks for final thoughts at the end of the two-and-a-half-day event at Ryerson September 28 to 30.
Leaping across the campus centre room, he whips out the pocket mic for the first person with her hand up. "I came in here feeling sharp and lucid, and now I'm feeling happy and confused," she says. Many chuckles among the group.
"Happy confusion - that's good," Glouberman muses, looking satisfied.
Not that confusion or even happiness is one of Glouberman's objectives. His are simpler - face-to-face human contact in a safe, respectful space. That's what writer Susan Crean wanted when her group, the Creators' Rights Alliance (CRA), contacted the local participatory performance artist and co-host of Trampoline Hall to put together the event, called CopyCamp.
"Copyright conferences are very polarized. They aren't comfortable to be at," she says. "The various arts communities have different issues, yet we don't talk together."
I know what she means. Having stepped into the copyright debate earlier this year as a member of the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, I know that various other music collectives, the Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) for one, have disagreed with our positive take on music file sharing.
But here I am at the very first CopyCamp mini group session with four other people, one of whom is fellow songwriter and SAC board member Stan Meisner. In the hall later, we have a great chat about each other's views and undertake to have our respective groups officially meet, finally.
The unconference movement has been used in a Silicon Valley scene called BarCamp, where tech heads meet to share new software developments. Essentially, all that's required for an unconference, as one participant puts it, "is a wiki, a venue and some pizza."
While the infrastructure for Copy- Camp is much larger (there is a fee if you can afford it, and grant money covers costs for travel and meeting rooms at Ryerson), a typical unconference begins when someone with an interest puts up a blank Web page, or wiki, and invites others with the same interest to fill in the agenda and come to the event.
Unconferences can take place in a bar, backyard or garage. At CopyCamp, everyone's encouraged to run their own workshop and participate in others. "In fact," says Glouberman at one point, standing on a chair (because "it's fun and dangerous"), "if you're not contributing or learning at the workshop you're at, you must leave it."
An unconference operates on the premise that most expert opinion is already available and that typical conferences are bad ways to exchange that info. "If you want the expert stuff, read the book," says Glouberman. "What an unconference does is build real social networks by having people meet."
For Speed Geeks, 12 "geeks" are positioned around the perimeter of a large room, and participants are separated into 12 groups. The geeks have five minutes to give each group their shtick, usually accompanied by visual aids.
When the five minutes are up, each group of four or five moves clockwise to the next geek. Part science fair, part sound bite, Speed Geeks is the human equivalent of Web surfing. Topics include the virtues of open-source software, the happily small-scale business model of music company upstart Blocks Recording Club, the wonders of appropriation art, and Web-based strategies for creating a living wage for artists.
The geeks' first attempts to finish before the five-minute mark are hilarious, but by the end their spiels are well rehearsed, leaving time for questions. I have none; after an hour my head is stuffed to bursting.
The unconference is more than a good template for social networking. The format serves the usually testy copyright crowd well. Many here have staked out official positions, but personal contact puts some issues in a different context - none more than the matter of the commercial use of indigenous traditional culture.
"We should simply declare at the UN that we will not participate in these copyright rules because they are harmful to native culture," says Saskatoon writer Floyd Favel. "By entering the discussion the way it's now framed, aboriginal communities leave their communal tribal properties, symbols and legends open to exploitation and they become a commodity."
Maori musician Moana Maniapoto felt that first-hand on tour in Europe in 2002 when a German company notified her that it had trademarked her first name (she uses only her first name professionally) and ordered her to stop using it.
"In the end they said I could buy my own name back for $8,000," she says. "The whole concept of ownership is completely different in Maori tradition. For us, ownership really means guardianship."
It might seem that sound and image collage artist Mark Hosler of the U.S. group Negativland has a similar problem, or at least a similar enemy to Moana's: corporations owning the visual and sonic landscape of American culture. But while Moana and others struggle to control usage of their traditions, Hosler fights for the right to use any image or sound he chooses, often without permission.
He's reworked Ethel Merman's There's No Business Like Show Business, chopping it up so she's shrieking, "There's no business like stealing.' It's this kind of thing that got him, famously, in legal trouble with Island Records for tampering with a U2 song.
But in a sublime moment that perhaps could only happen at an unconference, he turns to Moana during a large panel discussion on the last day and says, "I'd never use aboriginal imagery in any of my work."
Happy confusion, that's good indeed.