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Palm Springs Billboards Prompt Heavy Road Trip Conversations

 Xaviera Simmons' billboard art installation, "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band a Militia," for Desert X 2021 stands along the Gene Autry Trail. Four billboards stand in a line. The one closest to the foreground reads, "You are entering the reparations framework." A car drives down the road that runs along the billboards.
Xaviera Simmons' billboard art installation, "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band a Militia," for Desert X 2021 stands along the Gene Autry Trail. | Lance Gerber
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The following is a series of dispatches from Desert X 2021, which explores the desert as both a place and an idea.

The billboards along Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs are telling tales — ones that have for a long time been brushed under the rug, like embarrassing family stories, but which are now being seen and heard far and wide. The series of unusual advertising on the billboards are collectively part of a larger installation, "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band a Militia," courtesy of New York artist Xaviera Simmons and created for Desert X 2021.

Hear Xaviera Simmons speak about the reasons behind her billboards.
Xaviera Simmons and the Construct of Whiteness

Gene Autry Trail is a speedy, busy thoroughfare and it's tricky to read all the messages in one back-and-forth. We managed to stop at one spot and take a few shots without obstructing traffic or getting run over but it would have been more satisfying to leisurely take our time with each of them. The thing with billboards though, much like the usual advertising they contain, is that whether or not you're able to take them in fully, they manage to bore a hole into your psyche in a subliminal manner.

Especially words like "Reparations" — from the one that reads "You Are Entering the Reparations Framework" with a vignette from a Victorian family portrait.

Undeniably, "Reparations" is a word that urgently needs to make its way into America's political, social and ecological dialog in a practical and measurable way.

As we drove on, it was hard to tell if the juxtaposition of an actual advertising billboard for Rocky's Pawn Shop was intentionally meant to emphasize the narratives and messages from the drive-by installations by being such a stark counterpoint.

Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band a Militia" billboard art installation stands opposite of a billboard advertisement for Rocky's Pawn Shop. Behind the billboards is a clear, landscape view of the desert. Cars drive on the road that separates the installation and advertisement.
Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band a Militia" billboard art installation stands opposite of a billboard advertisement for Rocky's Pawn Shop. Behind the billboards is a clear, landscape view of the desert. Cars drive on the road that separates the installation and advertisement.
1/5 Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band a Militia" art installation stands opposite of a billboard advertisement for Rocky's Pawn Shop. | Martin Mancha
Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" is a series of billboards along Gene Autry Trail as part of Desert X 2021.
Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" is a series of billboards along Gene Autry Trail as part of Desert X 2021.
2/5 Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" reads "You are entering a reparations framework." | Martin Mancha
Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" is a series of billboards along Gene Autry Trail as part of Desert X 2021.
Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" is a series of billboards along Gene Autry Trail as part of Desert X 2021.
3/5 One of the difficult messages on Xaviera Simmons' billboard artwork reads, "California once tried to ban Black people." | Martin Mancha
Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" is a series of billboards along Gene Autry Trail as part of Desert X 2021.
Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" is a series of billboards along Gene Autry Trail as part of Desert X 2021.
4/5 A series of messages that comprise Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" can be seen along Gene Autry Trail as part of Desert X 2021. | Martin Mancha
Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" is a series of billboards along Gene Autry Trail as part of Desert X 2021.
Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" is a series of billboards along Gene Autry Trail as part of Desert X 2021.
5/5 The messages on Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" needs time to digest, a stark contrast to the fast pace of life as can be felt on the highway. | Martin Mancha

On one side of the road, Rocky's boldly declared:

"Make America Great" with a backdrop of the Stars and Stripes.
Below it: "By Rocky, a legal immigrant to the USA."

The word "Mayflower" and considerations of the dubious legality of the immigrants on board that vessel jostled for mental space next to "Reparations."

Opposite Rocky's billboard was another of Simmons' installations. We had to stop to read the whole thing:

"You Keep Our Most Brilliant Minds in a Perpetual Loop of Articulating and Translating the Ramifications of Your Systemic Generational Plunder."

Behind us, another Simmons billboard: "California Once Tried to Ban Black People."

As we left the billboards and Gene Autry Trail behind us, the words "Mayflower," "Reparations" and "Plunder" swirled around in my mind, alongside the newly discovered information about California's attempts to "ban" African Americans.

This was definitely the most memorable and provocative drive down an otherwise nondescript, anonymous freeway. If this could be the future of "advertising" billboards, perhaps America has the chance to tell a new story.

Another one of Simmons' billboards features a portrait of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black, trans-rights activist and prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. It also reads, "We call for radical distribution of resources because economic precarity is another form of harm."