Every morning on the playa, Ally Deraps wakes up in her trailer and stumbles outside into the dust to make breakfast, joining friends climbing out of tents and teepees for a bowl of oatmeal in the shade. She chooses an outfit for the day, usually something bright or themed. Then, around 10:30, she grabs a can of coffee and her Motorola radio and hops on her playa bike (furry purple seat, powder blue frame, strung with colored lights and sparkly pipe cleaners) for the 20-minute commute across Burning Man to work.
Deraps has been attending Burning Man—the annual anarchic-cooperative festival that sees an arts-focused city rise from the corrosive dust of the empty Black Rock desert in Nevada—since 2004. She met some of her best friends there. But these days, her routine has altered a little bit. She carries her radio at (almost) all times, ready to answer questions and resolve problems. “I can get a night off, but I’m always thinking about it,” she says. “I’m always Burning Man’s lawyer.”
So it is that, while her friends get ready for their daily playa adventures, Deraps sits in on a “round robin” discussion about everything from gate operations to law enforcement to the weather report. Then, after her morning meeting, she takes a few minutes to check email to see if any urgent issues have come up overnight. Last year, for example, Deraps and her colleagues had to track down an “influencer” who was breaking Burning Man rules by selling t-shirts and other merchandise in YouTube videos he was shooting at the event. Using those videos, they were able to zero in on where he was camped, ending up in a slow motion manhunt through a dust storm. They arrived at his camp to find he had already left.
By the time Deraps tells me about her routine, she has washed the playa dust from Burning Man 2018 out of her hair and returned to her desk in the Mission district. When she’s not on the playa, Deraps—who graduated from UC Berkeley Law School—works at Burning Man’s San Francisco headquarters, as its in-house counsel, focusing on intellectual property. Clad in a colorful dress and sensible flats, she wouldn’t look out of place at any corporate law firm’s casual Friday. But in a topsy-turvy version of what most lawyers like her do, her job is specifically to track down people using Burning Man to sell something—say, an ad for t-shirts featuring a model posing on the playa or a club night in Ibiza that calls itself “Burning Man Decompression”—therefore diluting the festival’s commitment to decommodification.
The trouble, Deraps tells me as she gives me a tour of headquarters, is that the idea of decommodification can sometimes be difficult to understand. (And, she points out laughing, it’s “not a real word in the English language, as you’ll see when you type it.”) Basically, the principle means Burning Man can serve as an escape from the obsession with profit that shapes so much of modern society. Beyond the occasional ice or coffee vendor, almost no buying or selling take place anywhere on the playa; many Burners cover logos and slogans on the gear they bring with them and spend hours preparing gifts to give to strangers. Yes, Deraps acknowledges, Burning Man itself technically uses trademarks in the business world, but its aim is not to use those trademarks for commercial gain: “it’s so we can protect them from being misused.”
Deraps is not just dealing with big companies in her trademark work. In fact, it’s often the opposite, Etsy crafters selling Burning Man-inspired art or Instagram entrepreneurs posting photos they took at the event in order to advertise their wares. Although there’s some cultural tension inherent to the enforcement of intellectual property law in a context that’s supposed to be about freedom of expression, Deraps says that when she explains that this is not about a lack of trust or disbanding of communal ties and more about “protecting this thing that’s special to us,” most people understand. And, in keeping with the organization’s reputation, “You’re not getting a cease and desist from Burning Man,” she says. “Our goal is to educate.” That means a lot of kind, delicate private messages and e-mails before any legal action.
Much like Deraps’ job, Burning Man headquarters is an unlikely combination of mundane office culture and can-you-really-do-that-in-a-cubicle wacky quirk. Yes, it has departments, like any other organization: education, communications, government relations. Yes, it has a mailroom and a little cafeteria and conference rooms. It also approaches rainforest levels of greenery, snaking vines and broad leaves blooming on nearly every desk. A library, complete with a video of an eternally burning fireplace, catalogues the various books written about Burning Man and displays jars filled with the ash remnants of years upon years of burnt Men. (Today, though, someone has replaced those with photos of each jar, as the real things are on display at The Smithsonian). The little cafeteria features a working organ with curved arms of sheet music undulating away from it—a former playa artwork, one of many that fill the space. And those conference rooms, with names like “Thunder Dome” and “Unicorn Corral,” are tricked out with painted windows and sculptures posing in the corners.
Burning Man office culture isn’t exactly conventional, either. There’s no dress code, of course, and during my visit I spot employees in raccoon and galaxy-themed leggings, a Renaissance Fair-style frilly blouse, and even a top hat; hair colors range from bright orange to bright pink. In fact, the organization maintains a tongue-firmly-in-cheek system that requires “change of hair forms” for planned follicular alterations. Staff are known to receive mock citations as punishment for not submitting those forms, especially right before the office closes down for Burning Man—the time of year when employees are most likely to be dyeing or trimming.
Our tour winds through the jungly floor, past the indoor swings and the shrine to former “chief philosophical officer” Larry Harvey, who died this spring, ultimately finishing at Terry Schoop’s desk. Schoop manages the Community Services Department, overseeing volunteer teams that manage tasks like recycling and running Black Rock City’s information centers. He shows me a bagful of 45 smartphones ready to deliver to Verizon for hopeful reunion with their owners. Then he picks up a composition notebook with a “Hello my name is” sticker on the front that reads “Lawston Found” and leads us out of the office.
One of Schoop’s manifold responsibilities is managing the piles of lost goods left on the playa each year. As he unlocks the door to the unit that doubles as a home for wayward burner paraphernalia, I’m aware of a dusty, musty, and slightly metallic scent: the smell of the playa, locked away. On one side, decorations for special events crowd the shelves: handles of Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, along with old playa signs; giant Christmas ornaments; and bags full of fake fur, yarn, and feathers. The other side is the source of the odor: dust-covered boxes of keys and IDs; and piles of backpacks, trunks, and bags—full of “mostly clothing,” Schoop says, although I spot what can only be described as a spiky black chest plate, whose owner must be missing it dearly. Schoop and his volunteers attempt to reunite at least the IDs with their rightful owners, sending them back to the listed address with a note requesting reimbursement for postage. “Nine out of ten times, they do it,” he tells me, “and often they add a little more for the people that didn’t.”
Cleaning up after merrymakers is one key to helping Burning Man run, Deraps tells me as we walk back to the office. Even at an organization that hosts “dress as your favorite conspiracy theory” and other similarly off-kilter themed happy hours, she still works mostly on her computer, still finds herself in the conventional legal position of focusing on risk management and “ruining all the fun.”
But in some ways, she says, Burning Man the Organization needs to play that role to help create Burning Man the City, “to create the container for this stuff to happen.” That means contracting and running emergency services, dealing with paperwork and fees from a panoply of government agencies, and just making sure everything runs as smoothly as it can in an intentionally untamable place. “When we’re doing our jobs, you might not even realize that there is an infrastructure,” she says. “But those banks of porta-potties didn’t just drop from the sky.”
The fact that she sees all the work that goes into Burning Man—that she’s part of that work, that she wakes up on the playa to go to meetings—has changed her experience there forever. That was hard at first, but then, as one does at Burning Man, she had something of an epiphany that helped her gain new perspective.
At last year’s Burn, Deraps approached the titular Man and noticed that, in an unusual artistic choice, he had smaller cutouts of himself carved in rows on the side of his head. “I look at the The Man, and The Man has The Man on his brain,” she remembers. “And I have The Man on my brain, all the time. I am literally constantly thinking about Burning Man, constantly thinking about protecting that symbol from being put on t-shirts and necklaces.”
At first, the thought made her wonder what difference her work made, whether anyone cared about decommodification once they left the playa. “Why do I even bother?” she remembers thinking. But then she looked up at The Man, surrounded by a crowd of other Burners watching him with equal reverence, transported by their experience there. “It sounds so cheap,” she says with a smile, “but I started crying. Because yeah—there, that’s why. Because it’s changing lives. It’s touching people.”
This was not a “kumbaya moment,” she adds, “like, then I was never unhappy about my job again.” But if that’s what it takes—navigating the gray area of structure and freedom, convention and art, in order to make this wild, extraordinary adventure possible—she’s prepared to live with it.