Tête à tête on the Mokele project

The summer season at Kenzo will be all about the jungle and its exploration.
We have encountered psychedelic forests and unending rows of orchids, we have crossed paths with clouded leopards while dressed in Jungle Camo or Spotted Zebra. This time we have gone on a more scientific yet equally inspired journey, which we now desire to share with you...


Mokèlé Mbembé is a cryptozoology project (the scientific study of animals whose existence has not been proven), begun by Jérôme Raynaud, trained biologist and director of discovery documentaries (exploring topics such as animals, anthropology, travel, cultures, etc.), Michel Ballot, a self-taught researcher and key player in international cryptozoology (he has spent over 10 years researching the Mokélé-Mbembé) and the Comptoir Général, a space dedicated to ghetto art located on the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris. Together they plan to organize an expedition following the tracks of a mysterious African diplodocus... The animal is said to be the size of a forest elephant with a long neck ending in a serpent's head, a long tail and four legs with three-toed feet!


read more

KENZINE: Could you tell us about the project, how you met and the expedition team?

Jérôme Raynaud: In 2009, I got in touch with Michel Ballot to put together an expedition with access to ultra-modern technological resources in order to make significant progress in this research. We have already carried out several small-scale expeditions in the past few years. After discovering new evidence offering real scientific interest, we now aim to conduct a series of expeditions with greater technological resources. We lacked the financial means to plan a larger-scale expedition, including a team of scientists who could study this zoologically rich area that is totally unique. I then contacted the Comptoir Général, which wished to join in the adventure to help us reach new technical and financial partners. They also wanted to handle the public relations for this project and make their extraordinary space available to us, a space which is very well-suited to the project.

Le Comptoir Général: The collaboration began as the result of an encounter with Jérôme Raynaud, which came about through a mutual friend. We watched a six-minute video teaser, which was all it took to give us goosebumps, leave tears in our eyes and stir up an intense desire to take part in the adventure. In this story, the Comptoir Général is playing its usual role of a ghetto art museum and a proponent of off-road exploration. We are producing a film of the expedition, creating background documentation chronicling the rich literature on the subject that dates back a century, and we are also raising funds, support and sponsorship for the project. As with all of our projects, a physical exhibit has been designed for the project that is open to visitors daily at our Canal Saint-Martin space. In the future we hope to delve more thoroughly into the world of science, especially "amateur" research. Given the technological changes that have taken place in the past few years, it is highly probably that the major discoveries of tomorrow will be made by "budding" scientists. We hope to be an encouragement to them. We are convinced there are still so many things left to discover.

K: Could you briefly explain what cryptozoology is?

LCG: It is a "pseudoscience" that examines mythical and folkloric animals whose existence has not been proven. It is a discipline that unfortunately was increasingly neglected and ridiculed in the 20th century, the century during which everything that was considered foolish or dangerous was rationalized. In short, it’s a lost cause (just the way we like them) and a godsend for the Comptoir Général.
J. R.: Science estimates that there are currently between 8-30 million living species on our planet. Only 1.8 million have been officially identified by science. There are then between 6-28 million species left to discover. Every year, we discover 16,000 new species.
In the etymological sense of the word, cryptozoology is the study of animals that have not yet been formally identified by science. It is a term that was invented in the 1950s by Bernard Heuvelmans, a zoologist who passed away in 2001. This term is currently associated with many scientific hoaxes, or at the very least, many legends that are treated with varying degrees of seriousness and which are often seen as jokes. The Wildman, which the media commonly refers to as the Yeti, is a prime example. Although the topic is currently prone to ridicule, the mystery still remains, and several scientists who work at recognized institutions are convinced of his existence.

However, at its origin, this discipline is based on the same principles as conventional zoology. Most of the animal species that we know exist today were at one time or another unknown. They were discovered through testimonials from local populations or isolated tribes who know their environment better than anyone else, for the simple reason that their survival depends on this knowledge (knowledge of hunting, of animals to beware of, etc.).
The stories of how the gorilla, the okapi and Przewalski's horses were discovered are perfect examples: Whereas local populations had spoken of these animals for years, nobody wanted to believe them. It was only through the perseverance of convinced researchers that these animals were later discovered.

K: Could you describe the Mokèlé diplodocus for us? How can its survival be explained?
J. R.: The animal we are tracking is only considered to be a "diplodocus" because of the image that men have attributed to it ever since they first became aware of these testimonials, which date back more than three centuries. Testimonials gathered from local populations living in the Congo River basin generally agree on the fact that the animal is the size of a forest elephant (smaller than its savanna neighbor) and has a long neck that ends with a serpent's head, a long tongue and four legs with three-toed feet. Some also mention a backbone, while others describe a "horn" on its head, details that could illustrate sexual dimorphism.

However, some testimonies also speak of Mokélé as an animal resembling a triceratops, or an armor-plated rhinoceros (a species that is now extinct yet was found only in Asia). Thus, if the animal that these people have described for centuries was a species of forest rhinoceros, this would already be an extraordinary zoological discovery, because no rhino has ever been observed in this region of the world to date.
However, most of these testimonials (which have been collected in areas far enough from each other to prevent the populations from being able to join together and create a farce) generally describe an animal that has a long neck, is the size of an elephant and has a long tail. This description always points back to the only animal we know of with this physique, the diplodocus. However, just as both both bats and birds can fly yet are completely different species from an evolutionary standpoint, nothing prevents us from saying that this animal could be a hippopotamus with a long tail, a crocodile with a long neck, or a completely new species... Discovering which animal these populations have spoken of for such a long time is the primary objective of our expeditions.

K: How do you know that this journey isn't a lost cause?
LCG: It is a lost cause. However, lost causes aren't ever completely lost. Especially when you believe. We find that the world is in a rather paradoxical situation: what is neglected or rejected very often has immense value. The notions of "richness" and "poverty" should be completely rethought. The same applies to the idea of modernity, as well as to the idea of the colonizer/colonized. Values such as exoticism and traditionalism, which have unfortunately taken on a pejorative connotation, should be reappropriated. The world is moving and changing. The future is not what we have thought it to be. Many people consider Africa to be a "lost continent" and believe the future is in China and India. We are of a different opinion.
J. R.: This trip would be a lost cause if someone could look me in the eye and tell me confidently that there is nothing left to discover in our universe, and more specifically, on our planet. Scientists agree that there are currently several million undiscovered species on our planet. They discover 16,000 new specifies every year. This area is one of the most primitive yet one of the least explored on the planet, and is home to the greatest number of endemic species. In short, anyone who delves deep into this forest will be able to discover a new species, be it an insect, fish, rodent, amphibian or plant... Such a discovery, as small as it may seem to the general public, will always be an extraordinary discovery on the scale of life, science and humanity.

K: At Kenzo, the jungle is the theme of our Spring/Summer season. It is a very recurrent motif today, both in music and fashion. What does the jungle represent to you from a cultural and environmental point of view, as well as from a conceptual or mystical point of view?

LCG: Indeed, the tropical theme is very present in artistic circles. It's something that has been promoted for over ten years. We kind of feel like pioneers of this trend, especially when it comes to music. Etienne "DJ" Tron, one of the two founders of the Comptoir Général, is the first to have reintroduced this neo-tropicalism in 2003 with projects such as Radioclit, The Very Best and Secousse music nights and compilations, etc. This is very likely a follow-up to a few "cold" years during which we thought robots would take over the world, when we thought the future of art was going to be "electronic." Daft Punk’s album "Human After All" really resonated in a strong way. Organic sounds came back into style, along with earthiness and original trance...  Exoticism made a huge comeback after being denigrated for decades. What we appreciate about the jungle is the idea of balanced chaos, intense motion, mysteries, the unknown, the plant and animal world, something that is bigger than ourselves. It makes us want to explore.
J. R.: The jungle is also the environment that we come from, because we can now admit without shame that man is an animal that has become empowered. We have left this wild environment to which we never really were able to adapt. As weak, slow beings, we were never able to deal with dominant species, and were often prime objects of prey rather than fierce predators. This was true until the day we decided to use our brains rather than our muscles or teeth, and preferred to live in an environment we made in our own image. By mastering the art of hunting and agriculture, we took control and "tamed" nature. However, this occurred in a defined, controlled and sheltered environment, and eventually we became removed from the "wild" world to create a new "evolved" world. Time has since passed. However, this wild world still exists, but now these two worlds are as different as day and night since the jungle has become unlivable for the modern, evolved man. Finding yourself in the jungle is a fascinating sensation, similar to swimming in the ocean. Something in us remembers our past... and yet the fact this world is not our own and that we cannot survive here terrifies us.

Today, the jungle (as well as the deserts, savannas and mountains) fascinates us and touches for reasons of which we are not aware. We contemplate these landscapes and photograph them because we fear they will elude us, whereas in fact they touch the deepest part of our being. We don’t understand them anymore, yet they tell us something, like an echo of our former lives. There is nothing mystical or magical about the jungle; it simply speaks to those who are willing to listen.


K: What is ghetto art, and is it in fact the Comptoir Général's aim to stop its marginalization?

LCG: Ghetto art is a term that we still hesitate to use after many years of consideration. We talk more often now about "ghetto cultures."  It is about identifying any marginalized emerging culture phenomenon, anything born out of the shadows, without any resources; something that is neglected, abandoned, forgotten, misunderstood, etc. It can apply to any artistic sector, as well as religion, science, education and medicine. We believe that there are ghetto plants, medicines and beliefs, as well as ghetto architectural theories. It deals in large part with black culture. We are also surprised at the immense value of certain individuals or projects that society marginalizes. Music has opened our eyes to extremely vibrant local scenes (coupé décalé, baile funk, kuduro, ghetto house, grime, funana, etc.), and yet they are completely disregarded. If we want to preserve and make all of these cultures known, it should not be motivated by the feeling that they need us. Rap did not need our help to become the best-selling music genre in the world. We are the ones who need these cultures. We want first and foremost to give ourselves some help, whether it be our descendants, France, Europe, the West or the world. The world is in danger. It is in the process of reinventing itself, and we wish to harness this ghetto energy in support of creating a more sustainable and ethical future.


More information available at:
To support the project: http://www.kisskissbankbank.com/mokele