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Sunday 18th June, 18.45 on BBC Radio 3

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Drawing on a wide range of disciplines, this feature explores the grid on multiple levels - as concept, as lived reality and art, from navigating the Manhattan street plan to its unfolding across the surface of a painting; its use in the visual representation of music, between stave and note (explicitly in so-called ‘graphic’ scores) to its presence in political thought and the geometry of the modern metropolis. The grid has been described as a checkpoint of modernism in the 20th century, a contemporary perceptual tool for understanding the flow of information in the present. 

There are political dimensions to this story too. The grid is a hidden form of order behind spontaneity, a key organisational device – simple, repetitive and austere but also perhaps consoling in times of political chaos. Mapped grids and city grid plans flourished in the West following the foundation of republics; in painting, during the period leading up to and immediately after the First World War. In city planning in particular the grid represented a set of Utopian choices. In the United States it was tied to mapping on a mass scale, the Jeffersonian gridding of North America, and a positive rejection of the European city model of tangled streets and random circles. The abstract grid would underpin a new civic order, rational and democratic - it has no centre, it belongs to Everyman. 

The programme explores the idea that the grid can be invisible or visible, not only a hidden idea or tool but for artists like Piet Mondrian spiritually satisfying in its own right, its simple geometry in theory infinite, extending beyond the limits of the canvas. Talking about the psychological power of grids in modern painting, art historian Rosalind Krauss pointed out that their appeal is based on a rejection of the chaos and the unpredictability we find in nature: ‘The grid turns its back on nature. Flattened, geometric, ordered, it is anti-natural… It is an aesthetic decree.’ The grid also joins architecture and music, not only in the geometric scores of modern composers like Iannis Xenakis or Morton Feldman but throughout the history of music notation from the Medieval period onward. It’s now the basis for music composition in the digital domain.

Today the proliferating networks of the web and production of virtual knowledge have prompted some to argue we're in the middle of a new emergent grid, shaping the world in its image, synonymous with public space. 

Moving across fields and practices, this feature shows the power of a very simple idea - so simple and powerful, in fact, it is often (almost) invisible. Contributors are drawn from art history and art practice, music composition, architecture and urban design, typography and modern political thought.

Producer: Simon Hollis

A Brook Lapping Production for BBC Radio 3