Unlike Guardian reviewers, we’re taking our time over the Biennial. What’s the rush, anyway? So, week by week, we’ll be sharing with you our ‘What We Did During the Biennial This Weekend’ diaries.

This weekend saw us hop on the Cooperative coach tour, whisking us around the city (well, actually, it might have been quicker to walk. But not nearly as much fun) to spy on the various studios comprising the Cooperative.

Formed to add collective muscle to some of the city’s longest-established and most consistently engaging arts organisations, The Cooperative is steered by the creative team behind Mercy.

First stop, the Co-op’s muster station cum performance space and gallery, the old Rapid Paintshop. Every week sees the shop become a temporary home for an artist – this week, Emily Speed is busily compiling an Art Book, Cardboard Folly, with contributions from a range of UK artists. It’s intimate and painstaking work, not perhaps best suited to a showy spectacle: and Speed’s work, too, is similarly intricate, ephemeral and not given over to the instant photo-opportunity of, say, Nicky McCubbing’s over-sized childhood grotesques, still on display –  but we’re looking forward to the book’s completion, and launch, at the Bluecoat in October. And there’s a display of Nicky’s previous creations: enough to create anticipation that this commission will result in another small wonder.

Bernadetter O'TooleIn an unprepossessing ante-room to the side of the Bluecoat’s main entrance is the Lost Soul and Stranger Service Station (the Bluecoat’s resident artists’ space): a concise exhibition consisting (currently) of Bernadette O’Toole’s explorations of space and shape. O’Toole’s curiously dimensioned panels look padded, but are in fact a 2D representation of real-life installations (pic r). They’re deceptive and quietly beautiful.

James Quinn’s work, co-incidentally, shares the same muted palette as O’Toole’s. That’s a bit of a shame, because without tonal contrasts, the two artists rob each other a little of their impact. Quinn talked about his work, and of how he plays with the conventions of time and place, of portraiture where the subject has turned their face on the painter, and of displacement and dislocation. Peculiarly displaced objects included Hitler, and a mutant bird, cross-contaminated with human genes.

Royal StandardNext stop, The Royal Standard Galleries and Studios, off Vauxhall Road. We’ll be posting a separate review soon, but we loved the light filled studios, set in a courtyard shared with mechanics tinkering away in oily garages. There’s a definite sense of purpose here, and, as curator Laura Robertson told us, “We aim to showcase the most exciting, innovative exhibitions and events that we can in our gallery, and, with our studios upstairs we’re keen to promote a critically engaged environment to work in, acting as a social hub for our artists and the wider cultural community.”

The Standard’s in a state of flux at the moment, with a handful of artists leaving and new talent about to arrive. From our visit, it looks like an exciting place to work, and, we imagine, to visit in the coming months.

Red Wire is one of the city’s newest collectives, holed up in one of those seemingly abandoned facades along Victoria Street. They’re an exciting bunch of young creatives, with a nice spike of rebellion embedded into their DNA.

For the Biennial, they’ve set up a gallery in the wonderful Lion Tavern, Tithebarn Street – and, after the clinical white spaces of other galleries, the work seems to pulsate into life on the flock and wood panelled walls of the pub’s snug lounges.  There’s a lot of humour here too, which makes for a pleasant change. And the lunch hour beer was well timed, too.

Far more conventional (at least in environment) are the studios of the Arena artists,  in the Baltic Triangle’s Elevator Building (main pic).

There’s a small gallery space devoted to a collection of curated works: Neither/Nor loosely takes gender and identity as its theme, although that’s quite opaque. The works twist and play with the traditional concept of painting, to create pieces that look pre-fabricated, laser-etched or otherwise dehumanised – Brendan Fletcher’s ‘It Knows Not What It Is’ looks like some injection moulded Japanese appliance, with its soft curves almost sensual. It’s a shame they seem crammed into the reception area.

royal albert hallArena’s studios proved to be a real highlight. Even though artists were strangely absent, each cubicle seemed alive with the spirit and vigour of creativity: as if they’d all just left for a tea break (perhaps they were all hiding). We spotted some excellent illustration work by Louise Morgan (pic r), as well as a range of fashion, jewellery, and visual arts – and felt like, when it came to local independents, we were definitely in the eye of the storm.

Which is, of course, the whole point. Full marks to Mercy for being the engine behind this initiative (and well done to Nathan, who recited one of his excellent poems en route, for being a chatty and enthusiastic tour guide) it’s great to glimpse behind the curtain now and again. It somehow makes for a more rounded, and more engaging Biennial experience. Artists, it seems, are human after all. We were touched.

Future tours promise even more delights – including a performance of Mercy’s perception-shifting and, we think, brilliantly conceived Audio Guide to the Biennial (there’s a snippet of it on their new podcast) taking you (or at least your mind) on a tour around conceptual artworks in the public sphere, lead by some of the UK’s most exciting young poets.

The Co-Operative Coach Tour
16 October, 13 November, 12-3pm
The Old Paintshop, Renshaw Street

To book, email: nathan@mercyonline.co.uk (the tour’s free)