Illegal waste dumping isn’t the most obvious subject for an art exhibit. But while the GW Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s exhibit on garbage includes heavy dose of activist wonkery, it also features a welcome eye for unexpected artistry.

The installation—“Wildcat Hauling: Working with Waste in Public Space”—was produced by the collaborative duo FICTILIS (Andrea Steves and Timothy Furstnau). It documents efforts by volunteers to clear the streets of West Oakland, Calif., of the burgeoning piles of discarded sofas, boxes, trash bags, and other detritus from the thoroughfares and sidewalks of the low-income neighborhood.

As the artists note, cleaning up trash-strewn neighborhoods is one of the rare subjects on which longtime residents and gentrifiers can agree on. And the effort’s admirable first rule is that any garbage photographed must be removed, not left to fester; this is not simply ruin porn.

Along with a raft of documentation—a recruitment letter given to professional trash haulers, an overview of the EPA’s insufficient enforcement efforts, a somewhat unhelpful map of the neighborhood, and a flurry of statistics, such as the nugget that each American produces 4.38 pounds of trash a day—the installation offers both photography and garbage sculpture.

As one might expect, the images include before-and-after pairings, including one clever experiment in using chalk crime-scene outlines to mark where refuse used to be. Occasionally, the work exudes pathos, such as the photograph of a pile of garbage that includes a large frame full of family snapshots. It’s hard not to wonder what misfortune led that particular possession to be discarded.

Other times, the refuse becomes oddly compelling. In one image, mattresses are stacked in a warehouse as if they were books or slices of cheese. And a number of images have backgrounds consisting of façades covered with surprisingly appealing graffiti (such as in the image at top). For a project that seeks to clean up disorder, the graffiti’s visual charm sends a somewhat discordant note.

Meanwhile, the sculpture in the installation also proves surprisingly artful—bales of crushed soda cans, cardboard boxes and electrical cords.

That said, the exhibit is too small in scope to fully exhaust its subject. It would have been good to know more about who is leaving junk all over West Oakland. Is it all outsiders? Or are local residents adding to the problem as well? Meanwhile, it’s not clear from the exhibit what constitutes equitable trash disposal. If trash starts in the streets of West Oakland but then is moved to a landfill, doesn’t that still impact someone else’s life, just somewhere else?

Through March 20 at the GW Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, 500 17th St. NW. 202-994-1700.