How to hack Hendrix, Schoenberg, and the Super Mario Brothers

Is the digital hacker artist Cory Arcangel the ultimate know-it-all in our age of flaky, vividly pointless imagery? Talking to the 32-year-old New Yorker is like trying to control a blob of mercury in your palm or fathom a Zen riddle. His Apple GarageBand autotune Demonstration, on show at the new 176/Zabludowicz Collection show, Systematic, filters a video clip of Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" through off-the-shelf software, revealing "the unanticipated and unsatisfactory shortcomings of supposedly optimal tuning".

For his work Op 11, Arcangel, co-founder of the multimedia programming and music ensemble Beige, spent months videoing cats walking across a keyboard until he'd all the notes required to splice together a cut-up of them playing Arnold Schoenberg's atonal piano pieces, Drei Klavierstücke.

"I definitely think that one of my jobs as an artist is to respond to what's going on, whether it's positive or negative," he says."I just surf along with what's in culture. If things are moving, you're always being given new situations."

But what has programmed Arcangel, former classical guitarist, to react so profoundly to ephemera such as Super Mario games and a book called The Digital Folklore Reader? This book argues that "glittering star backgrounds, photos of cute kittens and rainbow gradients, are mostly derided as kitsch or in the most extreme cases, postulated as the end of culture itself. In fact, this evolving vernacular, created by users for users, is the most important, beautiful and misunderstood language of new media."

For Super Mario Clouds, Arcangel hacked into the Nintendo game cartridge and modified it, erasing all of the characters, landscape and obstacles so that all that remained were its white clouds on a blue sky.

The artist speaks of an "obsessive-compulsive drive to do changes to everything I see. Like the Super Mario clouds. A lot of the things I do are experiments. Tests. Will this work? Will people consider this to be art? I'm enquiring into the situation, the human condition. And there's a lot of humour in it. It's all or nothing – the typical structure of a joke. Each work is a dismissal of the work before it, right? But I have these moments when I think I'm just going to delete my website and my Facebook profile, like, I've had enough?"

Systematic, 176 Gallery, London NW5 (Projectspace176.com) to 15 August

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