Hana Tefrati lives in a campervan with a solar panel, a stove, and various useful things she finds. She does not want anything more than that, and says she does not need anything more than that.

By Friedhelm Weinberg

Hana Tefrati breathes on the flame, again and again. The cardboard is already alight, but the remains of the wooden pallet still need a while to catch. She blows, takes a breath, blows again. At last, flames crackle in the stove and it slowly warms up inside the campervan where the 29-year-old artist has been living for four months.

Hana, a dancer, has become a handywoman, electrician and mechanic.

Hana always wanted a campervan. It gives her the freedom to go anywhere at any time, she can design it however she wants, and it allows her to pursue a simple, frugal life. Hana bought her new mobile home, christened it “Ella”, installed a stove, and screwed a solar panel to the roof. Hana is a woman who is opting out of the mainstream – in Germany, a country that wants to opt out of conventional energy sources: a country where people fit solar panels to their roofs and install combined heat and power (CHP) units in their basements because they want to move away from nuclear power and coal electricity, away from big suppliers and, sometimes, away from excess as well; a country that is building huge new power lines so that electricity can flow from North to South, from East to West; a country that is not quite sure whether it should rely on central planning or on a myriad of independent supplies.

Hana wants less. She wants to provide for herself, make things herself, and, in the process, use things that other people do not want anymore. She no longer wants to stand around with a champagne glass at premieres, feeling out of place among intellectuals and artists. “I want to find a way to bring the way I express myself on the stage to real life,” she says. Admitted to a ballet boarding school in France at the age of five, she later studied dance in Holland and performed at prestigious venues. But she does not want to do this anymore because it does not make her happy. She is seeking simplicity.

Hana’s search has brought her to the Gängeviertel neighbourhood in Hamburg. Ella, her 1977 campervan, is parked next to a caravan that is currently being converted into a public sauna. On the other side is another campervan with eight solar panels on the roof, which still do not provide enough for its two inhabitants’ electricity needs. So far, Hana has got along fine with her single panel. She does not use much energy: gas for the coffee, which she doesn’t want to give up, and electricity for the lamps. And even if she wanted to, she would not be able to consume any more electricity as she cannot plug in most of her devices, since she does not have a transformer to convert the electricity from the solar-powered battery.

Hana charges her computer and her mobile phone when she is visiting friends or in pubs and cafés. She cannot give up absolutely everything. She uses the computer to write grant applications for her performance art and to programme the websites where she presents her projects. She also does not want to give everything up. But since moving out of her flat, she only reads her e-mails once a week. She now finds different ways of using her time.

One of Hana’s new pastimes is working on Ella’s interior. She rips the covering from the walls, peels off what remains with a knife, and wonders why sometimes wool insulation emerges and sometimes polystyrene. Then she saws planks from a wooden board full of holes that she found on the street. She mounts them as shelves and is pleased because they fit perfectly and because it was such a serendipitous find.

Hana is doing a lot of this sort of thing at the moment. She bought Ella four months ago for €3,000, and the campervan is still not exactly how she wants it. She aims to install two more solar panels on the roof for winter, replace her light bulbs with more energy-efficient LED lamps, and, as soon as she has time, weld together her own stove. Her current stove is only borrowed, from a friend living in another van. The trained dancer has thus become a handywoman, electrician and mechanic: “There have always been great changes in my life, but none as great as this one,” she says.

Hana charges her computer and mobile phone when she visits friends or goes to cafés. She cannot give up absolutely everything.

Hana has been acquiring these skills because she wants to be able to do everything herself. Above all, she wants to understand how everything works – for example the wiring in her van, a complicated system that someone else installed years ago. She wants to understand technology the way she does people – partly to prevent herself being at the mercy of craft workers who may botch the job and who only care about money. That is why she also prefers to exchange apples and hand-sewn goods for repairs – and permission to watch over the worker’s shoulder.

But even if one day she can do it all herself, going off to live alone in the countryside would not be an option for her. “If you have gifts, you have to put them to use,” she says. She seeks out confrontation, friction and the challenge of getting to know other people – and, in the process, herself. This is why she has worked with problem schools in Hamburg to produce youth dance performances at big theatres, and why she enjoyed working on a piece of performance art at Documenta in Kassel, where she told strangers about what she perceives as one of her biggest weaknesses: she does not always have the courage to be free.

One example of this was when she tried to live in Morocco, her father’s homeland. While she was there she always felt that she was doing something wrong. She made an effort, she dressed appropriately, she held her tongue. She had wanted to stay there forever, but after two months she came back to Europe. Since then she has realised that she can only “opt out” where opting out is allowed.

What Hana is doing on a small scale, Germany is trying to do on a much larger scale. German homeowners are tearing open their walls in order to install new insulation systems, and renewable energy is booming. Yet it does not seem likely that, any time soon, the country will be able to do without new coal and gas power plants that run when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. The energy supply system may be changing more radically than ever before, but this change is fraught with dilemmas. And if the transition to greener energy is successful, then it will only be through a combination of courage, cunning and chance.

Perhaps Hana has it easier, even if the world doesn’t always make it so easy for her. As there are hardly any public water pumps, she has to go to friends’ places when she needs drinking water. When she needs to go to the toilet, she has to leave the campervan. But this does not really bother her: “Outside is where life is happening,” she says.

Hana was also surprised at how simple it is to live on raw fruit and vegetables. She actually began to do this in order to do without gas for cooking and to make the electricity from the solar panel go further. But then she found that she liked the taste of the raw fruit and vegetables from the communal garden of the caravan park in Kassel. She enjoys it most when there’s still soil on it: “It’s good for your teeth.”

“There have always been great changes in my life, but none as great as this one.”

Hana does not have her own garden. She is on the move too much for that – nowadays with the campervan but beforehand just with her rucksack. “I am a Berber, the nomadic lifestyle is in my blood,” she says. In her life on the move, there’s no place for plants, which need constant care.

Soon Hana will head for Spain, to wind down after her summer at Documenta, a project in Hamburg, and the renovation of her campervan. After that is a meeting of artists in Morocco, which she is organising herself. She hasn’t yet decided whether or not she will visit her family while she is there.

Hana likes to go with the flow and take things as they come. All she is certain of for now is that she will return to Germany in April 2013 – as that’s when Ella’s safety certificate expires.


OPTING OUT (English subtitles)

Artist Hana Tefrati is drastically cutting down her energy consumption. Friedhelm Weinberg went to visit her in her campervan.