Preview: 366 Days of Kindness

Matthew Badham talks to Bernadette Russell about an innovative project that had many highs and some lows

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In 2011, artist and performer Bernadette Russell embarked on a year-long project to do something kind for a stranger every day. This was 366 Days of Kindness,  a website-based venture which has subsequently featured in an exhibition, been the subject of a children’s activity book and inspired others to undertake their own random acts of kindness. It is also the basis of a performance piece, which is coming to The Lowry in Salford.

“I was at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 when there was all that rioting going on in major cities,” explains Russell of the impetus for her project. “I remember sitting in a café looking up at the television. There was Tottenham, where some of my friends live, and it was on fire.”

The images disturbed and upset Russell, as did the response that came afterwards from the media and politicians.

“There was so much poor-bashing. The story that was being presented was that it was all these unemployed young people who were just out to nick some trainers. Then, of course, as more details emerged and rioters were arrested, it turned out that there were lots of people with jobs who were involved too. The reality of the riots was more complicated than anyone had realised.”

The artist’s own response to all this negativity came while she was waiting in a post office queue on     18 August 2011.

“There was a boy in front of me with his hood up who matched the images I’d seen on television of a stereotypical rioter. He kind of looked like a trouble-maker, even though he might not be.

“He had his driving licence application, which has an envelope that looks like it should be freepost even though it isn’t. He didn’t have any money with him because of that, so I paid for his stamp and he was really grateful for what I’d done and very sweet about it.”

This act was the beginning of 366 Days of Kindness.

“I decided to try and do something kind for a stranger every day for a year. I didn’t have a plan. I just started doing it.”

Subsequent acts of kindness have included everything from giving someone their bus fare for a journey to hospital to distributing cakes and cards to Londoners on Valentine’s Day. For Russell, the project was a welcome antidote to the negativity that she says we are drip-fed by the media.

“If you scan the headlines every day and watch the news, they paint a grim picture. People are set up to be scared of each other, but I forced myself into a position where I had to talk to complete strangers and found, to my delighted surprise, that people are mostly nice.”

Unfortunately, Russell also encountered a lot of suffering.

“There seem to be more of us struggling than there were a few years ago. I noticed more homeless people and spent quite a lot of time listening to the stories they told me about their lives.”

Russell never intended 366 Days of Kindness to be anything other than a personal project.

“It was separate from my art practice. Then I was asked to get a little exhibition together about it. I was reluctant, but was persuaded to do so and it was the most amazing day.

“Then I got asked to write a book. I realised that people were interested in what I’d done and in its message, so I decided that I should also make a show about it.”

Russell describes the result as being a mixture of performance and a little bit of stand-up.

“It’s almost like a lecture that has jokes in it. So far, audiences have definitely gone out with smiles on their faces. The comments I get are that the show is thought-provoking but funny, joyous and light-hearted too. I certainly don’t want it to be a hectoring piece about goodness. No one needs that.”

366 Days of Kindness is at The Lowry on Thursday 27 February.

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